Japan Trip – Day 1 – Asahi, Pocky, Tonkatsu and Whale – oh my!

By | January 15, 2008

Tonkatsu Wako

With Vancouver having a population as diverse as it does, it comes as no surprise that our city has some of the finest cuisine around. From French to Chinese to Japanese, there are restaurants that can satisfy any desire at almost any price point. Having grown up in Vancouver, it’s been interesting to see how the tastes of my friends and I have changed over time. To think that just six years ago, Kamei Royale with its all you can eat menu was our favourite Japanese restaurant.

Thankfully, we have grown beyond that and have progressed to places like Guu with Garlic, Hapa Izakaya and Aji Sai. Though not necessarily the most expensive restaurants in Vancouver, they are of relatively good value – that is, you get what you pay for.

But is there something better out there?

Now truth be told, Japan had always been on the list of places to go, but the release of Paul’s excellent Tokyo food blog was the catalyst that we needed to make this happen. Could food in Japan be that much better?

We had to find out for ourselves so a package deal with Silkway travel was booked and planning began. Well, I should say, one person planned our trip and the rest of us nodded our heads in acknowledgment. From the mouth watering Matsusaka steak in Kichijoji to the fresh sushi at Tsukiji to the incredible Kaiseki at Kozue, we had it all covered.

After an agonizing month long wait, we boarded a plane for Tokyo and began our culinary adventure. Unfortunately, our first meal was a disappointment. The service was good and the Asahi was flowing, but the food.. well let’s just say that none of us were able to stomach more than a few bites. Yes, it’s hard to believe that with the vast technological improvements we’ve seen over the decades, they still haven’t figured out how to make economy airline food that doesn’t taste like Satan. If you ever fly JAL, it’s recommended you stick to the Pocky and Asahi.

Tonkatsu Wako

Front of Tonkatsu WakoWe arrived in Narita after a painfully long nine-hour flight and went straight to first eating destination, Tonkatsu-Wako. As you may have guessed from the name this restaurant chain specializes in Tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) and locations can be found all over Tokyo. Given that Narita Airport is at least an hour and a half away from Tokyo, this was chosen to maximize our eating time and make our schedule as efficient as possible.

English menus are available at this restaurant, but we didn’t think to ask for them so we struggled along with the Japanese menus. To facilitate the communication process, you’ll find that many restaurants have displays of the menu items where you can drag the waitress out and simply point to the things you want. You can find displays like this in Vancouver as well, but the ones in Japan just seem to do it better. The food almost looks appealing.

Food DisplayThe four of us ended up deciding on the $15 plate which seemed to offer us exactly what we needed at the time – a nice big chunk of meat! Pictured just to the right of the photo is a bowl of miso soup which is to a Japanese meal as fries are to a hamburger. The portion size should be enough for most, but if you are a gluttonous pig then free refills of rice and cabbage are available.

whole mealEven before the plates were set down on our tables we knew that we had something good on our hands. Long gone were the memories of the thin, cardboard tasting Tonkatsu in Vancouver; we’d discovered the real thing! The portion was more than generous and the meat was cooked a perfect, juicy medium (dare I say, 140 degrees celsuis) wellness.

The batter was simply something else. Apparently the thing that differentiates Tonkatsu at one restaurant from another is not so much the meat or the batter as those are easily sourced, but rather the blend of oils used in the deep-frying. More serious restaurants might use an exotic blend of several different types of oils whereas lesser restaurants might use something like 5-year old lard.

Tonkatsu up close and personalNow I have no idea what Tonkatsu Wako used in the kitchen, but their batter was simply superb. Not too oily, with a crisp texture and a rich sweet flavour, it accentuated the flavours of the meat perfectly. It was a little light on the salt, but as we discovered throughout our trip, the Japanese palette tends to favor lighter tastes – in any case, salt was provided on the table for those to adjust to their tastes.

Personally, I felt that the meat didn’t need the salt at all. Biting the crisp batter into the juicy meat was definitely a great way to start the trip! You have to be sure to eat quickly though as the bottom of the meat got a little soggy towards the end of the meal.

Total Bill: ¥ 1,560 per person

With our stomachs full and the itis kicking in, we boarded the “limo” bus to Tokyo.

Taruichi Shinjuku

Address: Daiichi Asakawa Bldg. 1F 1-17-12 Kabuki-cho Shinjuku-ku Tokyo. 160-0021
Access 5 min. walk from JR Shinjuku station (from Yasukuni street into the Koma theater direction on the corner of Don Quixote, the left side), 5min. Walk from Subway Shinjuku station , 3min. walk from Seibu-Shinjuku Line Seibu-Shunjuku station
Phone: 03-3208-9772 Reservation Reservation required
Business Hours: 17:00-23:00 (Last Call 22:00) Holidays Sunday – Holiday

TaruichiWe rested for a bit at our hotel and headed off to Shinjuku armed with a map and some bad Japanese. It was supposed to take about 15 minutes to get to Taruichi. 30 minutes later, we were still searching. 45 minutes later, we managed to flag down a person who (bless her soul) called the restaurant on her cell phone for us and gave us proper directions on how to get there. An hour later, we arrived, tired and
really not that hungry (see above).

Taruichi is a traditional Japanese Izakaya place and the interior looks much like a more ghetto version of Guu with Garlic. As with Guu, there are specials written on the walls but nothing in English. The menus were also in full Japanese. In a random stroke of luck (we got that a lot), one of the waitresses there spoke English and we drew on our incredible knowledge of Japanese cuisine to order Unagi and Sashimi along with a couple dishes of Whale. To date, I cannot believe how totally awesome we were at recalling the names of food. Any Japanese teacher would be proud.

Taruichi - SashimiFirst up was our assorted sashimi dish that included Tai (Red Snapper, front of the plate). Maguro (Tuna, left and right of the plate) and finally, Aji (Mackerel, back of the plate). We were also given explicit instructions to eat the Aji with the ginger and the other two fishes with the fresh wasabi which paired them off beautifully.

To say that the fish was fresh would be a little like calling Michael Jordan a good basketball player. The Tai was firm yet tender and without the rubbery texture that comes from the frozen farmed Vancouver stuff; the Maguro was not quite melt-in-your mouth tender, but it was a cut above the Tuna found here; and the Aji, well, it was just plain good.

Taruichi - Whale Sushi
Next up was the whale sushi! As gungho as I was about it before the trip, I must admit that there was some trepidation as I looked at the blobulous pieces laid out before me. Of course, I didn’t fly halfway across the world to wuss out so into my mouth it went! To describe the taste of whale is quite interesting as there aren’t very many foods out there that have a similar texture. This piece in particular, I can best describe as eating a fatty piece of rubber with some random meat bits mixed in. Personally, I like my sushi on the light side, so the oiliness of this part of the whale didn’t quite do it for me.

With the whale out of way, we moved our attention to the rather large pieces of Unagi (Freshwater Eel) sitting in front of us like dismembered snakes on rice. Unagi is something that is commonly found in Vancouver restaurants, though the portions tend not to be as generous. As far as I know, a large supply of the stuff comes from Asia and experience in Vancouver has shown even the freshest of Unagi to have a slightly fishy taste. Though the texture was similar to that of the stuff found here, the taste was more appealing due to the lack of fishiness. All in all though, it wasn’t anything too special here.

Taruichi - Whale Sashimi Finally, the piece de resistance, the chef-d’oeuvre, the culinary magnum opus, the dish that we’d been waiting for: whale3! On this plate, we had not one, not two, but three different pieces of the whale – all with a distinctive flavor. At the top of the dish was the meat sashimi portion of the whale which was easily my favourite part. It was firm and had an incredibly mild taste – almost like a beef sashimi, but at the same time, not.

Much like the pieces above, the thinly sliced blubber had an almost rubbery texture to it that actually feels a little bit like a balloon. The oiliness found in the mixed meat/fat pieces was not found here and in the words of one of our dining companions “Fat is goooood”.

As interesting as the other pieces were, nothing quite compared to the tongue. We knew it was whale, but yet it had an almost shellfish-like feel to it. The others with me disagreed, but I found its sweetness to be quite similar to that of Tsubugai (Whelk clam) with a slightly chewy texture. The grey you see at the top of the pieces? That’s the top of the tongue.

I would be remiss if I did not touch on the generosity displayed by the head chef at this restaurant. With the help of an English-speaking waitress, we were able to talk about our experiences in each other’s respective countries. When he learned that we were from BC, the conversation shifted to ice wines whereupon he scurried to the back only to return with a clear frosted bottle full of “Japanese Ice Wine” and 4 cups.

Wait a minute, Japan has Ice Wine? Well, it turned out to be some incredibly smooth Sake, but what impressed us more was the generosity displayed by such a simple gesture. Being the dumb Canadians we are, we attempted to reciprocate by buying him a beer which he very politely turned down (our waitress informed us later that it was not needed). A couple of minutes later, he returned with a bowl of edamame (soy beans) for us!

A great way to finish off our first day indeed.

Total bill: ¥ 13,440 (4 pieces of whale nigiri, 4 pieces of unagi, sashimi and whale platter).

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