Vi-Sand (Vietnamese), Shimokitazawa

My wife and I spent ten days in Vietnam last year and somehow never got to eat the popular baguette sandwich "Banh Mi" (here's your wiki article on the dish). It's really quite a shame as it's probably one of the very few good things French left in Indochina, and I had quite fantasized about the legendary baguette dish before leaving for Saigon.
We have never had the chance to try some of those places yet, so how happy were we when we realized that a Banh Mi joint had just opened in Shimokitazawa less than a month ago.

Vi-sand, which is an abbreviation of "Vietnamese Sandwich", is quite far your cliche asian joint and looks more like one of those relatively stylish new cafes popping out by the dozens in Tokyo right now. The place is managed by a friendly foreigner (he told me he's a restaurant producer) who is more than willing to help you: when I told him that this was our first Banh Mi ever, he kindly explained me what the dish was all about and what the recommendations were.

Definitely not looking like your average Vietnamese

There is a a choice of 4 Banh Mi: Beef & Lemongrass, Chicken & Ginger, Fish & Tomato and Tofu & Vegetables. My wife and I opted for the most popular "Beef & Lemongrass". By the way, each sandwich comes with a drink and a potato salad.

This is what the Lunch set looks like

I had always imagined Bahn Mi being made of crunchy French Baguette bread but the one we got served after 5 minutes following our order was definitely on the softer side. It has the obvious merit of not hurting your palate, but I would have preferred it crunchier.

The veggies

Once the surprise of the soft bread is left behind, the second impression is of a nice lemongrass aroma, which gives the dish a pleasant and refreshing taste. The freshness is accentuated by plenty of fresh coriander and mint leaves, some thinly-cut pickled radish and carrot, and some sweet and sour Nuoc Mam fish sauce.
The choice on the menu is mint or coriander but you can add either one for ¥50.

The meat hidden under the vegetables

The little strips of beef are stirred with minced ginger and what seemed to be on a blend of Nam Pla fish sauce and Shoyu soy sauce. They also add some pink-colored liver paste on the bread.
As mentioned earlier, the sandwich comes with a regular potato salad, but you can change that to a soup. The soup might actually be a better choice if you want to keep some sort of Vietnamese vibe to your food.

The not-so Vietnamese potato salad

It's overall a nice lunch though the pricing at ¥750 with a drink and a soup/salad might be very slightly high.
Once again, I have never tried any Bahn Mi before so I have no way of comparing it with other places, but if you have, your comments are welcome.

So there are no surprises when you come here, you should know that they don't serve Bahn Mis for dinner, if not for a Ham Bahm Mi (and some stews, curries and pots)

Vi-Sand is open everyday from 11:00am to 16:00pm for lunch and 18:00pm to 23:00pm for dinner.
2-12-13 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku
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Nakamuraya @ WeST PArK CaFE (Ramen and Burger), Shimokitazawa

East Meets West

This has to be one of the weirdest combination of food I've seen in a while: Ramens and Burgers served in the same establishment. Then again, if these were served in a random restaurant, I'd be VERY suspicious about the outcome, but we're talking about a famous Ramen joint "Nakamuraya" and an expat favorite West Coast style restaurant "WeST PArK CaFE" collaborating, so it got my taste buds rather excited.
By the way, you should know that the owner of "Nakamuraya" (famous for its salt-based broth), Shigetoshi Nakamura, has spent some time in the US as a teenager and also opened in 2009 a Ramen joint in Los Angeles called "Ramen California". It should therefore come as no surprise if he has been interested in mixing genres and cultures again.

The stylish shop opened beginning of January and I can't say it's been drawing crowds yet. Does it need more word-of-mouth or is it just potential customers being dubious about the combination of cuisine served there? I'm not sure yet. All I can say is that the burger I ordered was pretty good, so chances are the bowl of Ramen is worth it too. But that'll be for another occasion.

Stylish interior

There are two chefs in the kitchen: one seems to be in charge of the Burger menu and the other one looks at the Ramen noodles. Though I've been to WeST PArk CaFE countless times, I've never tried their burgers, so I decided to have the former cook get to work by ordering the Bacon Cheese Burger. (For your information, every burger comes with some fries)

The Bacon Cheese Burger

In about ten minutes came a rather tall burger with a promising look. The pictures don't do the burger justice in terms of size and color, but I can guarantee you that from the fresh tomatoes, lettuce and grilled onions to the juice-dripping beef pate and melted cheddar cheese, everything was pretty mouth-watering. The white sesame-topped buns are quickly toasted over the grill and (if I remember well) a hint sweet. Good bread. As far as I know, WeST PArk CaFE bakes its own bread so I would assume the bread here is homemade as well.

The buns soaked in meat juice

The charcoal-grilled pate is made of 100% Australian beef and there are no eggs, bread crumbs neither onion mixed in the meat : just plain meat so you can appreciate its taste. The beef was good and juicy, seasoned with salt and pepper only. There was a little bit of mayo-like sauce on top of the lettuce, but that's the only seasoning I could find besides what I mentioned. If you're the type of person who likes his/her burger simple with as little sauce as possible, this place should suit your taste.

The long and sweet French fries

There were not a lot of French fries on the side, but the few ones on the plate were thick and a good 4 to 5 inches in length. They tasted a little bit like Japanese sweet potatoes, so it was slightly surprising at the beginning. Good nonetheless.

The Bacon Cheese Burger costs ¥1,400 so it's not the cheapest burger around but it was a satisfying dish, both size-wise and taste-wise. Will try to review the famous Ramen next time!
In the meantime, Bon Appetit!

Nakamuraya @ WeST PArK CaFE is open everyday from 11:30am to 23:00pm (L.O. 22:00pm)
Setagaya-ku, Daizawa 5-32-13
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Shimokita Chaen Ooyama (Green tea room), Shimokitazawa

Did you know that the hectic Shimokitazawa and the surrounding area was covered with tea plantations until only about a century ago? As incredible as it is, Shimokitazawa seems to have been a moderate player in tea production (for the Edo market) until the completion of the Tokaido railway made the transportation of better and more renowned tea from Uji (near Kyoto) easier at the end of the 19th century.

Today's post is about the green tea room "Shimokita Chaen Ooyama", which is far from being your average tea room: the two resident tea "sommeliers" both rank at 10 dan (a dan is a Japanese rank system used in martial arts and fine arts) which is to my limited knowledge, the highest level you can attain in the art of judging teas. For your reference, there are only four 10 dan "sommeliers" in Japan and two of them (they're brothers by the way) work in this place...
The ground floor is a tea shop, from where sometimes comes a pungent smell of roasted green tea, and they have a "tea room" on the second floor which gets flooded in the summer with customers wanting to cool out on the house-specialty Maccha (green powdered tea) or Hojicha (roasted green tea) flavored shaved ice. The tea room, which you think might look traditional, is actually rather plain looking, making the incredible display of dozens of golden trophies won at tea contests sort of odd.

Until we get to try their famed shaved ice next summer, my wife and I settled for their Maccha Zenzai. A winter favorite dish "Zenzai" is a warm and sweetened red bean soup topped with boiled or grilled Mochi rice cake.

Flavorful Hoji-Cha

We were first offered a cup of very rich in flavor Hoji-Cha, which we slowly enjoyed before being brought the main dish. You will be amazed by the inspiring roast aroma of this tea.

The Maccha Zenzai at this tea-room consists of said red bean soup, a small quantity of thinly watered Maccha and some salty snack Ume-Kombu (salty plum flavored kelp)

The pretty Maccha Zenzai

The red bean soup is surprisingly low in sugar, allowing a better tasting of the delicately cooked Azuki beans. Zenzai sometimes comes in an almost puree form, but here at OoyamaChaen, the beans are simmered to perfection, thus letting you easily pick each bean with your chopsticks and really enjoy their texture and taste. The grilled mochi cakes are how you expect them to be: crunchy on the outside and glutinous inside.

The watered Maccha is served as a topping, so you can change the taste of your soup to your liking. The almost neon-like vibrant green and the dark azuki red combines perfectly, so the visual result of the topping is also worth it. Maccha essentially being just powered green tea (thus quite biter at times), I thought adding it on top of the dish would pretty much alter the taste of the dessert, but it happened to blend really nicely. Slightly surprised by this outcome, I tasted the green liquid separately with the tip of my fingers: the maccha in this tea room is very delicate in taste, leaving only a subtle bitter aroma of green tea in your mouth.

Beautiful green

Japan has an interesting custom of mixing sweet and salty, from adding salt on watermelon to eating sweet rice cake covered with a pickled sakura leaf (Sakura-Mochi), and the Zenzai dish is the perfect example: you will find a lot of places offering you the Konbu salty snack with the sweet soup and Ooyama-Chaen is one of them.

Their really good Ume-Kombu is covered with a very delicate Ume (dried salty plum) powder, but you may find the kelp a little "difficult" to eat if you're not used to it. It is a little bit of an acquired taste, and some people have a problem with its 磯の香り (Iso no kaori, literally "Smell of the ocea"). I strongly suggest you try theirs though, as it's a great one.

They also served us during the course of the meal a cup of nice green tea Guri-Cha (“Guricha or Guri-tea” is named from its shape similar to “guri” which represents the pattern of elaborately-coated red lacquer ware, or the whirlpool-like arabesque design. The official name of the product is steamed rounded green tea. (taken from this website)), so the slightly high price of ¥800 for the whole thing is to my opinion pretty much justified (I am not sure they always serve those different cups of tea though).

Be sure to always check their website as the menu changes according to the season (the Zenzai is served until the end of February so hurry up!) and they are often closed due to tea-harvesting. Looks like everyone is gone the whole months of April and May!!!
The caracter 休 means "off" so now you know how to look at their calendar.

Shimokitazawa Chaen is closed on Mondays, harvesting seasons and national holidays (make sure to check their website!)
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa2-30-2 2F
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Varie (Yoshoku), Shimokitazawa

After hearing that the uber-popular Japanese comedian Gekidan Hitori(劇団ひとり) would go to this Yoshoku joint "Varie" when he wants to treat himself, my wife and I got curious and decided to try it. If you don't know what Yoshoku is, here's a little explanation I wrote on a previous post:

A quick recap for anyone not familiar with Yoshoku. This Japanese remix of so-called western cuisine is said to have appeared during the Meiji Period, when Japan opened to and started to embrace the European civilization as a mean to develop the country. Though most of the dishes are European recipes adapted to the Japanese palate and available local ingredients, some dishes like Omu-Raisu (ketchup flavored rice stuffed omelette) or Chicken Rice (not to mix up with the Hainanese Chicken Rice or the Arroz Con Pollo in Latin America) are somehow "originals".

What Gekidan Hitori craves for is the Katsu Kare (curry and rice with a piece of deep-fried pork cutlet), but I went for the chef's recommendation Beef Stew to start with, while my wife opted for the "Yoshoku classic" Hanbagu Suteki (Hamburger steak).

We were quickly given a rather lukewarm onion soup and a little salad as part of the lunch set. Both dishes are nothing to remember of, so I'll pass on the details.

The star of the day came to me a little lukewarm too, but that may have to do with me spending too much time trying several setting for the best pictures. As you can see, the stew comes with your typical "English" style boiled vegetables, though I think the carrots were buttered and the potatoes quickly sauteed. Same as the salad and the soup, the supporting roles did not change my life.

The beef is very well stewed while leaving a little resistance to the teeth : not quite the literally melting-in-your mouth, disintegrating one, but almost there. The meet is not annoyingly fibrous as it can sometimes be so it's definitely a pleasant eat. The sauce is the typical red-wine based glaze, a hint dense but pretty good, and doing wonders with the rice (served on a different place). There seems to be, as you can see from both pictures, quite some fresh cream added before serving.

Not bad overall, but it costs ¥1,500, and when the hamburger steak my wife ordered cost only ¥800, it suddenly felt quite expensive for what it is. According to her, the steak was good but nothing extraordinary.

Which brings me to an early conclusion: maybe we should have gone with Gekidan Hitori's recommendation in the first place, the Katsu Kare. For your reference, I have featured two of the said dish in the past so please have a look should you be curious: the curry shop Pannya and the old-school Yoshoku eatery Kitchen Nankai

Varie is closed on Thursdays and opened the rest of the week from 11:00am to 14:30pm for lunch and 17:00pm to 22:00pm for dinner.
2-29-12 Daizawa, Setagaya-ku
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Dashin Soan (Soba), Shimokitazawa

the charming entrance

Finally some time to add a new entry!

This new post in a while features Dashin-Soan, an establishment serving a typically Japanese item: the cold "Soba" (noodles made of buckwheat flour) . But not your average soba you'll find for ¥300 at cheap eateries in stations or chains... The "superior" quality one.

the "waiting" space with the garden in the back

To be honest, I don't care that much about sobas as I am much more of an Udon guy (thicker noodles made of regular wheat flour), but I definitely like this place. I haven't been there a lot as it is a little out of the way (a good 15mn walk from the station), but the traditional decor and garden around the restaurant creates a soothing Japanesque ambiance and the noodles have been excellent every time we've visited the place. Not to mention the Shinganji temple right across the street with its giant gingko tree and a locally very popular shrine, the Kitazawa Hachimangu a block away, so the post-lunch/dinner promenade is worth it.
Dashin Soan is very popular, so you might have to wait a little bit before being seated, but the wait is on a bench outside by the garden, so it's not stressful at all.

everything is nice and classy

We waited about 10mn before being welcomed in the elegant restaurant: everything from the furniture to the dishes is chosen with taste.

In order to fully enjoy the noodles' flavor, my wife and I both ordered their recommended Akisoba (Autumn Soba) noodles, freshly boiled then washed and chilled in cold water, and eaten dipped in a cold dark brown Tsuyu broth (a mix of dashi, mirin and shoyu).
Akisoba designates the Sobas made of buckwheat planted between early June and mid-September and harvested between late August and late December.
Dashin Soan's noodles are totally homemade, from shelling and grounding the wheat, to making the dough and thinly slicing it into fresh noodles.

the supersized noodles

The noodles come in a large plate with two holes in the middle (that you don't see on the picture) that act as drainers for the excess water. Freshly grounded Wasabi and thinly-cut Negi (Spring onion) are served on the side for your liking. Japanese usually add both in the broth.

The grey noodles are square, about 2mm in width and a hint brown because of the tiny bits of grounded buckwheat shell mixed in the flour. The Koshi (firmness) is quite strong and the bite al dente. We ordered the supersize, which did not seem to be a lot at first but it's actually filling: you'll see... just don't slurp and swallow. Chew and savor those, and you'll find yourself really full. Plus, that will let you fully enjoy the taste of the buckwheat, slightly reminiscent of the wonderful aroma of a rustic Pain De Campagne country bread.

the freshly boiled and then cold water chilled noodles

At ¥1,300, it is not a very cheap lunch, but everything from the decor to the noodles is upscale, and you should thoroughly enjoy the experience.

Last but not the least, if you want to eat the noodles the real Japanese way, you should order one or two little entrees to munch on with some nice sake and finish your nice meal with a plate of noodles.

Dashin Soan is closed on Tuesdays, open the rest of the weekdays from 11:30am to 15:00pm and 17:30pm to 21:30pm; from 11:30am to 21:30pm on weekends and notional holidays
3-7-14 Daizawa, Setagaya-Ku
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Gyoza Senmonten Genbu (Gyoza/Noodles), Shimokitazawa

Chinese dumpling "Gyoza"s are often side dishes in Japan. People order them in Chinese joint as part of a bigger menu, paired with Ramen noodles or Chahan (Fried rice) for example, and rarely as a solo item. The trend has recently changed though, and restaurants specialized in Gyozas have lately increased. Gyoza Senmonten Genbu (Specialized Gyoza restaurant "Genbu") which opened in the summer of 2007 is one of them, and though seemingly going through high and lows in terms of occupancy, has established itself as a moderate player within the Shimokitazawa food business.

If you're wondering what Japanese-style fried Gyoza are, please click this wiki article on the dish. Should you want to skip on it, you just need to know that it's ground meat (most of the time pork) mixed with finely chopped vegetables (generally garlic, chinese cabbage and Nira garlic chives) wrapped and sealed in thin dough before being fried. I have also talked a little bit about the history of the dumpling in Japan and the not-so famous reason why Japanese added garlic in the Chinese recipe, in this post.

Genbu doesn't really look like a normal "Chinese" restaurants: most of the apparent infrastructures are in metal (even the stools are what seem like kegs with a cushion on top) and a big tv monitor near the kitchen plays MTVish R&B music, therefore giving the place a rather cluby look, uncommon in this neighborhood. However, don't let that modern western feel deceive you on the food quality: they do serve very decent dumplings and (less memorable) noodles.

I went for the house-speciality "TonToro Gyoza", which adds some gourmet pork cheek meat in its regular pate. The cheek is supposed to be one of the most tender part in the animal and butchers can only get a little amount from each pig so it is a "limited" menu, slightly more expensive than the more standard dumplings they also offer.

The gyozas were very well fried, the dough being nicely crunchy (but not hard) and golden-brown on one side whereas the other "rawer" faces offered more doughy resistance. Some bad places will sometimes offer you fried dumplings that have the same texture all around and that can be such a turn-off... The ground meat felt very tender indeed and the first bite freed a bit of some nice juice from the sealed dumpling. The amount of garlic felt just fine and balanced and the overall taste pleasant. The shop takes pride in recommending you to eat its Gyoza with lemon juice, salt and paper, and not with the orthodox soy-sauce/vinegar/chili oil mix, so you can enjoy the taste of the meat better. I can definitely recommend you to follow their advice. Good stuff.

A plate of Gyoza not being enough to fill my belly, I also ordered a Nira Ramen (Ramen topped with chopped Nira garlic chives), a dish that I have learned to appreciate at the excellent Chinese restaurant "Fuumin" in Omotesando. The waiter warned me that it is a hot and spicy noodle dish, but I ignored his tip and still went with it as the one I was used to in Fuumin is a delicate one based on a low-salt bouillon.
Well, stupid me: it was hot! Not the unbearable hot, but still enough to cleanse your system the next day...If you don't like hot, don't even think about trying this. The soup was so red-hot with Rayu (Chinese style chili-infused vegetable oil) and thus so chili spicy that I couldn't really tell what the broth was based on. There was a moderate topping of what I thought to be a mix of pork ground meat with a sesame oil based sauce, that smoothed the taste when mixed with the soup, but it still was not enough to clear the hotness.
The noodles used were interesting as they had the very characteristically firm texture, almost the color, the size and the taste (not too sure about the taste as it was lost in the chili aroma) of the noodles used in the Korean-style cold Reimen noodles. It is rather rare to have these used in hot noodles recipe so that's worth the experience.

At ¥500 the beer, ¥450 the Gyoza and ¥750 the noodle dish, this simple dinner amounted to ¥1,700, which is affordable. Their beer is nice and cool, so if you feel like munching on heaps of Gyozas while downing some draught beer, Genbu is definitely an affordable option. The waiters are polite and very professional.

By the way, it's next door to the uber-famous old-school Chinese eatery "Mintei".
And if you're into J-Pop, it's worth noting that the restaurant is owned by someone very close to the multi-platinum selling duo "Kobukuro". Who knows, they might come one day for a plate of Gyoza?

Genbu is open everyday from 11:30am to 04:00am
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-8-8
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Chabuzen (Soup Curry), Shimokitazawa

I have recently started this weird thing of shooting manhole cover and feature them in a photoblog. It's nothing new; there are plenty of incredible blogs about those covers, if not even art books about them. I am not sure why I started this, but I just love the designs (obviously) and there is in finding new designs a ludic aspect to it that is quite exciting for the geek in me. The past few years I have spent looking around and up for unusual or pretty things to immortalize with my camera, now I am constantly looking down.

Anyway, looking for new round iron treasures, I was walking on the north side of Shimokitazawa when I came across a Soup Curry restaurant in the middle of almost nowhere. It was noon, hot and I was hungry so I entered the tiny place to discover an almost funnily small counter with three seats, and two little Chabudai (traditional short-legged table) in the back. The owner wearing a traditional brown outfit looked almost surprised when I got in, making me a hint worried that I was the only customer in days. It's also worth noting that I was the only customer during the whole lunch so it's still fair to say that it's not the most happening joint in Shimokitazawa... But my worries were vain as the food he offered me was good.

I ordered the Tappuri Yasai No Soup Kare (soup curry with "bunch" of vegies) and since I had to order how hot I wanted my dish (like Magic Spice but without the tripy names), I went for the house-recommended hotness "ChabuKara".

While waiting for my curry, I had time to chat with the owner, from which I recall 1) he opened the shop a couple of years ago 2) he chose that place because it's far from the station, enabling him to keep menu prices low as the rent is cheaper 3) he loves soup curries and has even spent some time in Sapporo, the "soup curry world capital", to study and improve his own recipe 4) he's originally from Hiroshima and on and on and on...

Just like Magic Spice, this eatery's specialty is definitely more like a hot Pot-Au-Feu (chicken bouillon with vegetables) than a regular curry. The SUPER low-on-salt clear soup looked like it'd been given a lot of care and attention. Little or almost no fat was floating on the transparent liquid and though the place is supposed to be a Yakuzen Soup Curry joint, the bouillon didn't taste (at least to me) like the pungent Kampo spices I usually assimilate to be Yakuzen-style. Yakuzen is a cuisine based on traditional Chinese medecine and this article might help you clarify things a little bit if you have no idea what I'm talking about.
One thing the soup did taste like (and increasingly as I was getting towards the end) is the south-east asian fish sauce Nam Pla. When I asked him whether there was fish sauce in it, the reply was positive.

The house-recommended hotness, which I think was third from the smoothest, was within reasonable for me, but probably too hot for anyone with chili issues.

The restaurant's webpage says the curry contains an impressive 14 vegetables, which I'd love to descrive to you, but most of them were so stewed and had lost so much of their original look, that it makes the listing almost impossible. I'm not a total debutant in food but I'm afraid I could name you only few ingredients so I'll leave it all up to you to try it and find out for yourself! One thing for sure is that numerous different textures were present, from slightly crunchy to melting, so it did not feel like a whole messy puree. One of the non-vegetable very interesting item was the Okara No Gnocchi, literally gnocchis made out of Okara, a substance left when soybeans have been pressed to make soy milk (which in turn is used to make Tofu and Tonyu). I have talked about this uber-healthy product in this doughnut shop post as well. It had the look of mochi (glutinous rice cake) but was mealier inside. A weird texture to be honest, and definitely not a bomb of flavor either but it was a new discovery for sure.

The rice plate I was served was full of flavorful Hatsuga Genmai (germinated brown rice) which is even richer in nutrient factor than the already pretty healthy regular brown rice, due to the work of the enzymes present during germination. I felt the slightly bigger grains went very well with the very liquid soup.

It's out of the way at a good 15mn walk from the station, but the owner/cook is quite funky, the tiny shop is kind of cute and the meal is at a very affordable ¥600, so if you're feeling slightly adventurous and want to try something off the tourist trail, do walk the extra few hundred meters to visit this place.

Chabuzen is closed on Mondays and open the rest of the week (including national holidays) from noon to 15:30pm and 17:30pm to 23:00pm (L.O. at 22:30pm)
Setagaya-ku, Daita 6-16-20
080-6603-8587 (that's a cell phone number so the phone bill will be slightly more expensive than a fixed line call...)
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