Monday, April 25, 2005

A masu full of saké helps the sunomono go down

So, the dinner, whose menu and ingredients are posted below, was a smashing success. I of course took zero photos and thus have nothing of substance to share with you other than my word that it went off great.
However, to make up for it, E and I spent a couple of days in San Francisco and took pictures of EVERYTHING. Yep that's right, we did the tourist thing in our own backyard.
We hate the city. HATE IT. Wouldn't live there if we were being paid to. But it is, after all, a pretty fun place to go once or twice a year. So we booked a room at the Metropolis and prepared to chow down all over the place.
The first place we hit was the hotel's restaurant, La'zeez. It's an Asian fusion place, remeniscent of Berkeley's Xanadu restauraunt that went out of business a few years ago. Xanadu was awesome; unfiltered sake flowing from bamboo containers, truly diverse Asian and South Asian fusion food, which is what La'zeez aspires to be. Its problem is that it's in the middle of beat-down downtown S.F. where no one is likely to frequent it except for strippers and the homeless. The restaurant's one Sri Lankan waiter, Tony, was an awesome guy.



Tony

For the two days that we spent in the city, Tony was our pal. We would walk into the bar and order drinks and just chat. For his own part, Tony drank almost as much as we did! The only thing we ate at La'zeez was the momo. Naveen, the manager, was Nepalese so we figured the momo would be right on. They were pretty good, but they were designed to be treated as pot stickers (would you like them steamed or fried?) and had the pot sticker squished-together-taco shape.

Next we headed downtown to hit some bars and do some shopping. The famous bar on Union Square called the Gold Nugget (or is it the gold dust? I never walk in there at a baseline, so I can't be sure). Gold Nugget, you suck ass nuggets. They take no form of payment but cash, so they have a pimpbot at the front of the joint that charges $2.50 for withdrawals. We thought we were lucky to hit the happy hour, $2.95 margaritas and beers. I got a margarita; E got one and a beer. These were the filthiest, nastiest, weakest margaritas ever. I thought of a joke that I didn't use with the waitress: "I've had better margaritas in MEXICO!" Dig the irony. I wasn't sure she'd appreciate it. So we downed 'em and after a quick romp shopping we went back to the hotel.

After a shower and another quick drink at La'zeez, we decided to head out for some dinner. We figured Japantown would be worth the hike because we're so rarely in the city. After a couple of blocks we hailed a cab. I used to do that death march every day from the Powell St. Bart station to Japantown for Japanese classes - I felt no need to do so again when I had a few beers in me!

Disembarking at J-town, we headed for my most favorite Izakaya-style restaurant, Maki. Izakaya are what I miss most about Japan; they are midway between bar and restaurant with none of the BS of either. They have the best saké, the best apps, the best atmosphere. Somehow Houston, Texas has a great Izakaya, but San Francisco, California, with its huge Japanese poplulation has only two (and I won't tell you where the other one is). My reigning favorite saké for the past few years has been Shirakawago Nigori Genshu (Nigori-zaké). It is an unfiltered sake produced by monks in the Hida-Takayama region of Honshu and when it is fresh it is absolutely lovely. Even seasoned sceptics appreciate this kind of sake. This summer, my love of Shirakawago drew me to the village of its namesake, tucked in a remote valley.






Heaven on earth?

The Shirakawago village (literally, "white river village") is a UNESCO world heritage site, and home of some of the only gassho-zukuri ("praying hands made") houses left in all of Japan. When the Japanese government outlawed non-corporate production of liquor, they tried to force these people to abandon production of their nigori-zaké. However, they sued and won on the basis that the local priests use it in their ceremonies. It's still illegal to make it at home, but the temples are allowed to.

Once when I was at Maki wth a friend years ago, we ordered a bottle of Shirakawago. As we drank it and waxed nostalgic about things Japanese, an older guy at the bar motioned to us. "Do you like this saké?" Why yes, we did. "I am the one who imports it into America." WOW. That codger was cool, and we ended up talking to him for a while, even getting his meishi (business card). I don't have his card any more but what I do have are very fond memories of traveling to Shirakawago.




I have swum in the white river. I have touched the face of god.

I swam in the white river of the legend I created for myself. It was absolutely beautiful and as refreshing as the saké that bears its name. Incidentally, in the village itself, they sell three kinds of nigori zaké (well, actually, dozens of kinds, but three kinds of this particular brand). One that is totally clear; one that needs to be shaken up like a snowstorm ball (the kind that is sold in the US) and one that is totally white like milk. Yes, I tried them all, and even managed to bring two bottles back to the U.S.

So it follows that Maki and Shirakawago hold special places in my heart. Put the two together, and I'm sailing. Eating izakaya food is a special treat; but eating it stateside with your favorite saké is a party! The Maîtresse D' of the restaurant, a young Japanese exchange student, was oh so pleased that I was able to speak to her in her native tongue, and we got treated pretty well. We ordered "autumn leaves falling on snow" (which is one of my specialties at home: ikura over grated daikon), chilled tofu with dashi, nori, and other fixins, crab and cucumber sunomono (which also came with bay shrimp - yuk!) and a ten zaru udon dish.




Delish. Click the picture to enlarge.

A masu full of saké helps the sunomono go down in the most delightful way. Even if there are bay shrimp in it. After one more order of Ikura, we bade goodbye to our lovely Maki, vowing to one day return.

Tune in next time for day 2 of our San Francisco treats!

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