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
Click here for a MAP