eating like a pro: sushi ko honten

As gluttonous as I am, fine dining often sends me into a panic. Mention Michelin stars and I start to sweat a little. “A restaurant like…like the kind that involves forks?” I’m always tempted to ask while I mentally try to assemble an outfit in which I can drop a knife and wait for a waiter to pick it up without looking like an enormous asshole. Dim lighting and multiple knives might get some girls off, but if I have to eat with a fork, give me diner food with free coffee refills over The French Laundry, any day. Take me somewhere that provides chopsticks, and odds are you’ll make me very, very happy.

This can be somewhat awkward and difficult to explain to most friends, unless it’s a boyfriend on a budget. People think my discomfort can be chalked up to nervousness or politeness, and to an extent, they are right. Suppressing my characteristically crude personality while simultaneously trying to politely finagle a piece of blue fin tuna tartar topped with foie gras foam into my mouth tends to set off my anxiety. It’s not that I’m incapable of appreciating haute cuisine, I just don’t like how fine dining involves an obstacle course of inquiring waiters, cutlery of various sizes, and a tablecloth that seems to accentuate any crumb that falls on its surface. Navigating this while requiring me to be interesting, engaging, and possessing razor sharp table manners is like asking me to wheelie up a mountain side while chugging a handle of vodka. The idea is, you know, kind of stressful.

Sometimes, however, the stars will happily align. There will be no forks, no knives, and no annoying waiters. Great company, chopsticks, and a Michelin star will be provided. In late January I went to dinner with Adam at Sushi Ko, and had the best meal of my life.  

A one hundred and thirty year old establishment nestled in Ginza, Sushi Ko – which literally, and appropriately, means “happiness” – is meticulously managed but surprisingly comfortable. Seating only a handful of customers, the setting is intimate yet respectful; there is as much opportunity to converse with the sushi chef as to have your own private conversations. There is no menu and ordering is almost done for you. “The omakase course?” I was asked, and I nodded, before turning to Adam. “I just…I kind of just ordered for us…”

Despite that initial facepalm moment  [okay, there was another one where I asked “do you have sake?” and then had my “I’m not an idiot” card full revoked], our serendipitous luck continued as we were seated in front of possibly the only sushi chef in Tokyo who had been a serious amateur road cyclist back in the 1980s. On learning that Adam is pro cyclist, we talked about LeMond, racing in Japan, and mountainside crashes. All between bites of perfectly crafted sushi.

Transient

It is customary for most sushi chefs to ask if you have certain fish you can’t eat. Usually, I would definitively refuse to eat uni, or sea urchin. The orange, textured flesh, with its creamy texture and distinctive aroma, is an expensive treat that I habitually decline. “Ugh, uni,” I am known to say. “You don’t like it because you’ve never had good uni,” my father likes to tell me. I give him the response that all daughters are required to give their fathers: I roll my eyes.

Unfortunately, Sushi Ko proved him really, really right.

When presented with uni, which Adam wasn’t a fan of either, we hesitated. But determined to prove my father wrong, and figuring I could just hold my breath and swallow most of it if it was as unappetizing as I expected, I popped it in my mouth.

It couldn’t have been choreographed better. Adam and I both turned to look at each other in mutual shock and awe. It was completely, unbelievably delicious.

It wasn’t even the best part. We almost passed out in bliss later, when we were presented with sushi made from the broiled skin of Striped Jack. It sounds questionable, I know, and looked suspicious, but was possibly the most amazing thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. “I’m so happy,” I told Adam, “I’m just going to go lie down and die now.”

I still feel that I wouldn’t have missed out on too much if I had [okay those post-dinner waffles were good, but still]. Then again, I wouldn’t be alive to tell you all about it. And to insist that if you want sushi to change your life – and I mean that, because, as a Japanese person who loves sushi, it certainly changed mine – that you make reservations at Sushi Ko.

 

Sushi Ko Honten

6-3-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061

Tel: +81 (03) 3571-1968

Map

eating like a pro: ramen at nagi golden gai

“Ramen for lunch?” I texted. I know I didn’t even have to put a question mark at the end of that statement, but I like to keep up the façade that maybe I can be accommodating to other people’s preferences. In this case, as I was talking to a gastronomical twin, it was wholly unnecessary. An enthusiastic response was sent back and plans to meet in Shinjuku promptly made.

Though Japan is often equated with both sushi and ramen, the problem with the latter is that, unlike sushi, you can’t just follow the [Michelin] stars. Whole books and blogs are devoted to the subject of ramen in Tokyo, which makes choosing just one place a bit overwhelming. On top of that, when you’re on limited time in Tokyo, you want something that consistently delivers but isn’t so famous you can get it in New York. I’d heard enough about Ramen Nagi to assume that this would fit the bill.

Despite its location in Golden Gai, a small area in Shinjuku crammed with tiny bars [including a favorite of Tarantino], I wasn’t quite ready for how cramped the space really was. Behind a simple door, a wall of a tiny staircase leads up to a ticket vending machine, where you make a selection and hand the tickets to the guys behind the counter. The restaurant [if it can really be called that] is narrow enough to demand the creative use of space: customers’ backs are almost against a wall of cardboard boxes and tissue boxes are suspended from the top of the bar. When Adam and I were called up from the alley where we were instructed to wait, I was directed to a seat next to a giant bag of rice, some empty bottles, and a keg. Adam tried to squeeze his legs under the ledge that served as the table. It didn’t work very well but at the very least, he wasn’t seated next to anyone else.

In minutes, though, we had two giant bowls of noodles to distract us from our seating situation. We’d ordered the standard ramen, plus an order of tsukemen. Tsukemen – the new noodle dish darling of Tokyo – consists of cold ramen noodles that are served with a concentrated version of regular ramen broth. The noodles are dipped into the broth before being eaten. It’s different from ramen, but equally good.

Probably because the ramen at Nagi Golden Gai is very good. Chewy, curly-edged noodles are served in a dense broth with a thick cut of pork, a few sheets of seaweed, and a marinated, soft-boiled egg. It’s the kind of food you can’t hate and hits that gastronomical trifecta of comforting, filling, and “holy shit, that’s good.” It’s the ideal bowl of sustenance to take the edge off a night of binge drinking in Golden Gai, or simply a good, cheap lunch with a favorite friend.

I can’t quite remember what we talked about after our bowls of deliciousness arrived, probably because I was too busy enthusiastically slurping noodles [while Adam ate like a normal, well-mannered human being]. When I finally came up for air because there was nothing left to eat, I mentioned that I was surprised that no one had recognized Adam. He shrugged in response as we edged our way towards the stairway, squeezed between a wall of boxes and the customers lined along the bar.

A guy sitting at the counter looked up briefly at me as we passed, before turning towards Adam: “Are you Adam Hansen?” he asked.

We looked at each other in mutual surprise and disbelief at the serendipitous timing of the question.

Adam shook hands with the guy before we stumbled down the steep staircase, laughing at what had just happened. Soon we were back on the street, headed back into Tokyo to continue eating like a pro.

sushi, food babies, and apple pie

I’m bloated. There is eyeliner residue still stuck all over my eyelids [yes, I did shower]. My legs don’t want to support my weight today [not only because I’m a few kgs heavier].
I’ve ridden a grand total of two hours in the past four days and am currently fully committed to flaking out on today’s power intervals [sorry, coach!].
But since the day before started with eating apple pie, in an alley, with Adam Hansen, and ended with the best meal I’ve had in my life so far, I am also committed to not caring about the consequences.

Let’s do it again, soon, Adam.
[Picture above taken by Adam. See his tweet for some extra food porn.]

trading watts for brownies at tu-lu's gluten-free bakery

I'll tell you a little secret: back in 2006, when my dismal state of semi-employment was pointing, uncomfortably, to the necessity of going to graduate school, I briefly fantasized about going to cooking school. I'd been baking a lot at the time, and not in a cutesy, housewife-y kind of way. I was the weekend warrior baker equivalent of those heavyset dudes that build whole houses in their spare time. I sneered at pre-flattened sheets of butter sold for folding into croissant dough, and went to work doing it the old-school way with a knife, a block of butter, waxed paper, and a rolling pin. I obsessed over the crumb of my various sourdough loaves, and remember the day I nailed down that distinctive, gel-like interior. Dry yeast lost its sparkle after I discovered its sponge-y, fleshy, fresh counterpart. I was like Edward Scissorhands, but with flour-covered dough-cutters.
But since stable employment seemed like something I should be looking into, I went to law school instead [yes, LOL]. While my career might not currently be amounting to 400 hours of billables per month, I'm sort of glad the whole professional baker thing didn't work out. Because around the time I developed a peanut allergy a year or so ago [I was pretty sure my gastronomic world ended that day], wheat started to make me sick, too. R.I.P. PB&Js.

By “sick,” I mostly mean “looking like I’m 6 months pregnant” [hence taking some risks while in Paris, because, hi, Paris]. I don’t have celiac disease, but the discomfort can be incapacitating, to the point where I’ve turned back from rides in pain. Corn started to do the same thing, except it felt like I’d swallowed razor blades as well [R.I.P. Mexican food]. Did I mention I’m lactose intolerant, too? [My Mom: do you want to get pizza with us today? Me: …What am I going to do? Lick the sauce?]
With the lack of gluten-free alternatives here in Japan, I kissed everything resembling bread, goodbye. I’m mostly powered by rice, now; it works, but it can get boring. I mean, sometimes a girl just needs a fucking brownie. Like, one that won’t make her completely sick.
Which is my long-winded way of explaining why I ended up at Tu-Lu’s Gluten-Free Bakery while in NYC. And by “ended up,” I mean I went there three times in less than five days and completely did not care if I was recognized by the guy behind the counter who sold me some phenomenal sunflower seed bread [it’s pricey, but you get a huge loaf], cupcakes, brownies, muffins, and coffee cake. I wanted to buy the entire case and take it back with me to Tokyo. The stuff there is seriously so good, I got creeped out and scared.

“It tastes…real,” I said to Brett, my dairy-based-frosting-consuming, non-gluten-intolerant, gastronomic partner in crime, after my first tentative forkful of an adorable red velvet cupcake. “What if it makes me sick?” I tried to whisper, with my mouth full.
I killed the rest of that cupcake, but braced myself for the bloating and grossness. I waited and waited and waited…and then forgot all about it. Nothing happened. I’d eaten a cupcake – one that was really fricking good, and didn't feel like a stupid compromise – and I didn’t have to spend the next 24 hours bundled up in blankets and sequestered in pain, moaning like a maimed moose.

A couple of days later, there was coffee with a warmed-up hunk of Tu-Lu’s bundt cake and a carrot morning muffin [for the record, as much as I would have liked to, those were shared and not solely consumed by yours truly]. They were amazing. There was none of that dry, grittiness or the dense, heaviness of some gluten-free baked goods. I had toast – toast that didn’t taste like a slab of dry starch! – with my eggs for breakfast. I savored forkfuls of soft, pliant coffee cake while cradling hot coffee. “I’m totally getting fat,” I said to Brett, “wanna go to Tu-Lu’s?”

On the plane back to Tokyo, I realized how much I’d taken for granted when I made the mistake of trying to bite into a prepackaged gluten-free cookie. It shattered into a million crumbs in my hand and all over the front of my shirt. It was a friendly reminder that when Tu-Lu’s isn’t involved, explaining the optimal way of eating a gluten-free cookie can sound like instructions on deepthroating: “try to shove this entire thing into your mouth before it explodes into cookie dust, and if by chance you succeed, then have fun trying to swallow.” Except, you know, if we’re talking cookies, you don’t even get slut points for the, um, consumption.
Apparently, you can, however, earn some fat kid points. My pants have been feeling a touch tighter since leaving New York [and no, I’m not referring to my perma-boner for Tu-Lu’s…], evidence that I totally did it right. I could say the clichéd “I’m so glad I don’t live in New York because I’ll be here all the time and I’ll get fat” thing that seems to be included in every positive Yelp review. I’m not sure if I could ever possibly believe, that; don't tell my coach, but I'd consider trading a few watts for Tu-Lu's.
Tu-Lu’s Gluten-Free Bakery 338 East 11th Street (Between 1st and 2nd)

review: skratch labs exercise hydration mix

I’ve thinking, despite all the snow we got yesterday, about this past summer, when I cycled through sticky heat with bottles filled with slightly diluted Aquarius. I used the sports drink in powder form so I could water it down, but for a good three months, attempts at hydration usually resulted in uncomfortable, sugary yet acidic phlegm. The taste would eventually turn from manageable to cloying, in direct correlation to the duration of the ride and the rising temperature of the liquid in my bottles. It didn't matter what brand of sports drink I chose - Pocari Sweat, Aquarius, Aquarius Zero, whatever - they all tasted the same at mile 30 in 30+ C heat. I still drank the lukewarm stuff, but only because dehydration and heat stroke seemed like a less than optimal way to die.

The result was dietary exhaustion. If you've never had the misfortune to experience this, imagine a dysfunctional couple, arguing. In your mouth. Not in that way. "You need this in this heat, don't even think you don't," one half would screech. "I'll be fine," my taste buds would seethe back "Just fucking stop..." right before being drowned out in sugary salty water. My left hand would unconsciously lower the bottle and my mouth would weep.
But like significant others who settle into rock-like stoicism whenever the Hurricane Sandy of their better halves blow through, I got used to it. I accepted that this was part of the experience. Another thing I can love to hate about cycling.
My license to complain about the lack of tolerate sports drinks was, however, revoked on purchasing a few single serving packs of Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix. I wasn’t expecting much, but the pixelated graphics and awesome logo appealed to my Japanese inability to resist attractive packaging. Besides, if Tim used it, it couldn’t taste like absolute ass, right?
A month or so ago, I ripped off the conveniently perforated top of a Lemon Lime flavored pack, shook up my bottle, and took a testy sip.

I get it. I get it now. I get why people call it “Crack Labs,” and why you’d never want to drink anything else if given a choice. Because if Dr. Allen Lim told me I could have a lifetime supply of the stuff if I gave up sushi, I would – at least briefly – consider taking him up on that offer. And I say that as someone who actively and often fantasizes about wading into an Alaskan river [along with any grizzlies] to catch and rip apart salmon with my teeth.
It’s refreshing [Skratch Labs…although I imagine the salmon would be, too]. Light; kind of like how you’d wish Crystal Light tasted after watching all those commercials with smiling, happy Caucasian women. It has none of the phlegm-creating sugary aftertaste, and you actually want to keep drinking it after the 4th or 40th gulp. You get a little sad when you drain the bottle. You look through your entire pantry about three times after you finish your last pack, on the slim hope that maybe you bought three of those things instead of two the last time you were in the States. You get a little scared thinking about not having the stuff in your bottles this coming summer.
I used up the last of my pathetic supply a few weeks ago, and kicked myself for not investing in a few kilos of the stuff. I felt like Frank Lucas in American Gangster, but without the cousin in Thailand to call up. How in the hell do they expect me to get a re-up of the stuff from the other side of the world?
I suppose that’s what friends – and the Internet – are for.