Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Coffee, Tea, & Cake @ café GMT plus

There are many extraordinary things about Japan. Its orderliness and cleanliness. The subways, trains, and Shinkansen that run on perfect time. The beauty of its temples and tea houses. Its unique fashion trends and broader aesthetic traditions.

But hands-down, Japan, in my opinion, is seriously lacking when it comes to one important category of life and the things that make it worth living: Sweets. Desserts. Pies. Gooey, decadent cakes. Unless you count bean paste as a culinary treat (and I don’t know many fellow Westerners who do), you can be hard-pressed to indulge your sweet tooth in this country.

So when my friend J called to tell me about a new café she had found with homemade desserts that are out-of-this world-good (or at least, thankfully, out-of-this-country), I was there almost before we got off the phone.

“café GMT plus” may have a strange name, but it makes up for this with its sound dessert policy: fresh-made cakes and pies; rich, smooth coffee; and a unique selection of house-blended teas. (They also serve lunch, which I’m sure is as delicious as their desserts, but, um, who has time for lunch when there’s a whole display case of homemade cake demanding to be ordered?)

J and I sipped our full-bodied coffees (a creamy hot latte for me, an ice-cold cappuccino, sprinkled with bitter-sweet cocoa powder, for her) while we waited for Tamaki Maeda, GMT’s owner, to bring us our sweets. Tamaki-san, a little sprite of a woman with long black braids, a huge smile, and excellent English, has owned the café for 12 years, although it’s only been tucked away in its current location, on a corner near the U.S. Consulate in Umeda, since last October. As she brought us plates piled high with cake, she explained that the café’s areas of expertise are two: freshly baked desserts using original recipes and specialty blended teas mixing fruits, herbs, tea leaves, and even flowers. I think she may have given us more details, too, but frankly, I couldn’t concentrate any longer, because there was now a triangle of dense chocolate cake, dappled with caramel and taunting me to pick up my fork, sitting alongside a fat slice of cinnamon rum-raisin cake, iced with a delicate drizzle of white and then topped with a cloud of whipped cream. Before I could even take a bite, I was overcome with the scent, a mix of spice, cinnamon, and sweetness.

Perhaps because I began eating so aggressively she thought I might choke, Tamaki-san soon brought some of her personally-blended tea: a pot of rooibus (a South African infusion) mixed with hibiscus, rosehip, and flowers. It was deep, deep red with a sweet smell but a surprisingly tangy and even slightly spicy flavor. Then she walked us to the glass display case to exhibit what else we could have ordered. Sitting plump and deliciously on the shelf were a slew of newly-baked treasures, among them a sweet cheesecake; a salty butter and caramel cake; a fresh banana loaf; a sweet, brown chestnut cake; and a confection of blueberry angel chiffon, iced with sugar.

“We’ll be back,” I told Tamaki-san, tearing my eyes away from the case to smile gratefully at her. “Hopefully tomorrow.”


café GMT plus
Monday through Saturday, 11:00―20:00
Holidays and occasional Sundays, 11:00―18:00
Map @ http://www.gmt-cafe.com/access.htm
Menu in English & Japanese; staff speaks English

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Culture and Yaki Niku @ Grill Miyata

When most people think of Kyoto, they think of gorgeous gardens, simple but achingly lovely tea houses, and the world’s most breathtaking temples.

I think of beef.

Here’s how this happened: Once upon a time, I was also seduced by Kyoto’s cultural treasures, always connecting it in my mind with the magic of Japan itself, the seat of some of the globe’s most special places. But then my good friend (and former dissertation advisor) from Boston, P, came to Kyoto on a prestigious, highly-scholarly semester-long fellowship. Left alone one night, he decided he wanted to try some delicious Japanese beef, but didn’t want to go to a fancy steak house. He discovered a place called Grill Miyata that seems to have a cult following on Internet. He went there. He ate some steak. He called me and said I had to go back with him―soon. And then, despite his status as a highly cultured academic, one on of the most serious and stunning thinkers I’ve ever met, he turned me―his former doctoral student, no less―into a cultural heathen. Because now when I go to Kyoto, I scoff at his suggestions to see some Noh drama or explore the aesthetic particulars of a famous rock garden.

“Um, let’s just, like, eat some steak at Grill Miyata,” is my current rejoinder of choice.

Grill Miyata is unique in several ways. First of all, it is really, really not fancy. It resembles a sixties diner, with a long counter cluttered with bottles and dishes, lace curtains that look like Sears-issue circa 1950, and even the occasional chip in the woodwork. But therein lies its charm, tucked away at the edge of Gion, where the antique shops give way to signs of girls in pink bikinis. The menu is simple. (Grilled steak, chopped hamburg steak, or grilled chicken and shrimp.) An old DVD player croons American blues and jazz. And a charming, 80-year old Miyata-san, clad in a bandana and glasses, presides over the whole scene with tales of secret war-time bombings of Kyoto, undercover crime operations that “even the CIA doesn’t know about,” and how he was the first person in all of Japan to serve garlic chips.

The last time P and I went to Grill Miyata, my husband T, enjoying a rare night off from his salaryman job, was able to join us. P and I ordered the 200g grilled steak (¥9000) and T the high-value 200g hamburg steak (¥3000). Both courses came with a free drink of choice, salad, smoked salmon, the ubiquitous corn-soup that Japanese steak houses always seem to serve, a croquette of crab and shrimp, and rice or potatoes. But the crowning glory was the beef itself, a tender, sublime Sagagyu variety from Kyushu, grilled over charcoal so it’s less greasy than teppanyaki-style steak, and topped with garlic chips and green sprouts. In combination, every bite starts with a kick of salt, then blooms into richness from the beef, deepens with the sharp flavor of the garlic, and lastly lifts slightly with the fresh crunch of sprouts.

T, always a man of few words, was similarly happy with his hamburg steak―which was chopped with spicy onion and then layered with a rich brown garlicky-Worcestershire-like sauce―proclaiming profusely, “Mm, good!”

Maybe it’s just my new-found anti-intellectualism, but I found this commentary more eloquent, more pitch-perfect, than any other proclamation of Kyoto’s riches I’ve yet to hear.


Grill Miyata
Gion Nawate Shijo-agaru.(1 block E and N of Shijo-Ohashi intersection)
Open 5-10:30pm (LO).
Closed Mondays and Thursdays through June 2009, just Mondays from July 2009 on
075 525 0848
Menu in English & Japanese; staff speaks some English

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Frequent Flyer Miles & Indian Food @ Raja

When my friend L called to say she had some news—involving a pilot from down under, a layover in Osaka, and many a martini—I immediately gathered our group of gaijin girlfriends for dinner so we could hear the details all together. Since I knew L’s tale would be spicy, I suggested Indian.

Five of us met at my favorite Indian restaurant in all of Osaka: Raja in Temmabashi, which also has a new branch just opened in Yao. The Temmebashi location is neither fancy nor large, holding only about 10-12 tables (depending on how they organize the seating), but the food is out-of-this-world good.

We toasted with a surprisingly good Indian red wine (who knew?), smoky and smooth and only ¥2500 a bottle. (L, still a little hung over from her adventures in pilot-land, stuck to the non-alcoholic Mango Lassi, a slightly sweetened mango and yogurt shake.) We covered all the essentials: when the next flight was scheduled to arrive with him on it—or, more precisely, with him flying it, (in late June); whether there’d be any free frequent flyer miles coming our way as fringe-benefits for L’s friends (never); and then of course, my top priority—what we were going to order (a lot).

So as we gossiped and giggled and gained new appreciation for the airline industry, we ate Chicken Tikka (a sizzling dish of spicy, boneless chicken chunks on top of pan-seared onions and peppers) and then Malai Tikka (also boneless white-meat chicken chunks, but marinated in a sauce of garlic, nuts, yogurt, and butter). Next, we dipped into a potato and cauliflower Alu Gobi curry; a creamy spinach-based Palak Paneer with cubes of fresh white cheese mixed in; two orders of minced chicken Keema Curry (one with eggplant and one with sautéed lotus root); and a rich, lentil-based Dal Paneer, featuring beans stewed with tomato and onion and spices. On the side, we ordered a slew of Indian carbs: cheese nan, garlic nan, onion nan, and—as if the universe were paying homage to L’s aviation adventure—the appropriately misspelled “plane” nan.

We ended with hot, spicy chai tea for half of us and Kingerfisher beers for the rest. Then L went home to sleep off the rest of her hangover, while our other unmarried friend, S, went to check for new deals on Orbitz’s travel site. H, J, and I—all lawfully wedded to Japanese men—gave a collective, nostalgic sigh for the high-flying days of our long-lost singlehood. But then we each happily headed home ourselves, eager, in the end, to see our lovely husbands, who, although possessing nary a pilot’s license among them, have still been able to lay new worlds at the feet of their lucky Western wives.


Temmebashi location:
Indian Restaurant Raja
Osaka shi, Chuo-ku
Otedori, 1-4-1 Osakaya
New Ote Bldg. 1

Yao location:
Indian Restaurant Raja
Osaka fu, Yao shi
Yamamoto Chuo, Minami
Cosmo Paradise Bldg.. 1F

Menu in English & Japanese; staff speaks some English

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Japanniversaries & Tacos @ Ola Tacos

It was my friend Sally’s Japanniversary, and to celebrate her third year of survival in Kansai, we decided to take her for tequila and tacos. (She had a show later that night as part of an improv comedy troupe with which she performs, the Osaka-based “Pirates of the Dotonbori,” and we had the idea that we’d get her even more ready for the stage by ordering her multiple margaritas.)

So a group of us went to Ola Tacos in Shinsaibashi − near enough to her performance in a club along Dotonbouri, but far enough so if she needed to walk off a buzz, she’d have the chance. Ola is a small place, but it’s big enough on both flavor and variety to boast 30-40 kinds of hot sauces (from mild to super hot), a huge range of cocktails (from Cubra Libres to the “Malibu Pine” − coconut, pineapple, and dark rum − to the requisite margaritas), as well as a collection of rare tequilas that the very hip bar-chica, Shino-san, assured us are very hard to find in Japan. Shino-san has a long, wild mane of kinky black hair and was sporting a huge sliver and turquoise-studded necklace, and she explained in charming broken English that the chef, her husband, “makes tortillas every day by hand; hand-made tortilla is also very rare in Japan, even if in Mexico, too.” Then she explained that every year she and her husband go south of the (U.S.) border to study Mexican food and culture (and apparently to shop, given her great accessories and all the Mexican-themed decorations dotting the bar and walls).

We started our Japanniversary fiesta with quesadillas, which Ola offers fried or non-fried. Ours was chicken in tomato sauce, blanketed with melted cheese and topped with fresh guacamole and sour cream. We had pozole, a delicious, spicy soup with pork and “giant corn” (a milder, boiled version of the corn snacks sold fried and salted in Kansai’s combini), garnished with sliced onions and jalapeno. Then came enchiladas verdes, with a sour green tomato sauce over chicken-stuffed tortillas covered in cheese. For tacos, we had ones enfolding a spiced mix of beef, pork, and chicken in chili tomato sauce; then ones with shredded beef and cheese; and a finally an order with pork stewed in orange and a peppery achiote spice.

When we left, we were stuffed, Sally was still standing strong--so she didn’t have to stumble an unsteady serpentine path to her performance after all--and we were looking forward to many more Japanniversaries of toasting kanpai with Ola’s tequila.

Ola Tacos & Bar
Osaka Higashi-Shinsaibashi
Marusei Building, 6F

Tuesday - Thursday, 6pm - 1am
Friday & Saturday, 6pm - 3am
Sunday, 6pm - 12am
Closed Monday

Menu in English & Japanese; staff speaks English
Drinks from ¥550-¥950 (excluding rare tequilas)
Food from ¥550-¥1050

English Web site @ http://homepage2.nifty.com/olatacos/eng-index.html

Friday, April 10, 2009

Networking & Taps @ Casa de Oimatsu

As a foreigner in my husband’s homeland, building female friendships in Japan has felt crucial. As a writer, meeting other women whose professions figure prominently in their self-image has felt equally important—especially in a country where many wives forego their careers, and after I had, in some senses, given up my own home for my husband’s. So I knew the foreign professional women’s organization FEW Kansai would be perfect for me, providing job advice as well as professional networking—and, most exciting to me, a monthly Gourmet Club, where members try a new restaurant, trading career insight (as well as fashion tips, gossip, and giggles) over dinner and drinks.

Being an eager FEW participant, and more importantly, perpetually hungry, I recently offered to organize a FEW gourmet event. I told my friend J (another American hyper-focused on her career, and even more hyper-focused on her next meal—making her a soul mate) I needed a great place to go. In the true spirit of sisterhood, she offered the perfect advice: Casa de Oimatsu, a little Spanish restaurant with food, basically, to die for.

At Casa de Oimatsu, nine women found a cozy handful of tables, walls decked with modernistic Spanish posters and wine bottles, a Japanese chef who trained for five years in Spain, and a unique selection of some transcendent dishes. We ordered sangria (¥800/glass), a white one infused with peach, and a red, spicy like mulled wine. We surveyed the menu and the tapas encased in the glass that ran along the bar. Then we ordered food. A lot of it.

Garlic toast with tomato: buttery, salty, garlicky, heavenly (¥300). Broccoli sautéed with bacon, served with a paste of crushed tomato and peanuts (¥300). Creamy scalloped potatoes with sheaves of salsiccia (¥300). Fried lotus root slices sandwiching generously spiced chorizo (¥400). Minced lamb with cumin, garlic, and eggplant (¥350). Grilled red cabbage, mushroom, yellow pepper, red diakon, and eggplant, accompanied by coarse salt for sprinkling and pesto for dipping (¥1260). Three kinds of homemade sausage, all disparately seasoned, with a side of hot mustard (¥1260). Intensely tasty sizzling mushrooms, bacon, and garlic in oil, served with hot, homemade bread (¥840).

Then three kinds of paella: a grilled vegetable version for the vegetarians among us (¥2520 for 2 people); a hearty homemade sausage and white bean variation for those, like me, who eat everything (¥2520 for 2 people); and Casa de Oimatsu’s interpretation of traditional paella, with seafood, red pepper, beans in their pod, and sliced lemon (¥3360). By now, we were too full to order individual desserts, so, with lady-like moderation, we split six or seven: a dessert special of freshly made, moist banana bread slices with chocolate ice cream (¥630); molten chocolate mini-cakes with rich liquid centers(¥630); and a couple of crème brulee, their burnt-sugar shells set off against vanilla ice cream (¥630).

By the end, I had some crucial take-aways for the evening: neither sisterhood nor professional networking has ever been more fulfilling.

Casa de Oimatsu
Shouei Building Kita-kan 1F
Nishi-Tenma 4-2-7, Kita-ku
Osaka 530-0047

Lunch 11:30 - 16:00, L.O. 15:00
Dinner 17:30 - 23:30
Food L.O. 22:30
Drink and Tapas last order 23:00
Menu in Spanish & Japanese; staff speaks excellent English

Friday, March 20, 2009

Recession Dining @ Modern Japanese @ Dynamic Kitchen & Bar Sun

With the global recession raging, there’s only one thing a woman like me—who hates to cook, loves to eat out, and has hardworking Japanese husband vainly urging fiscal restraint on his American wife—can do. In an effort to lend my wholehearted support the Kansai restaurant scene, I’ve created my very own stimulus package, the cornerstone of which involves snookering friends into inviting me to their business dinners.

So when I learned that my best friend J had a favor to return to a colleague, a corporate charge card, and a reservation at the modern Japanese restaurant “Dynamic Kitchen & Bar Sun,” I somehow convinced her that all she was missing was me.

As we rode the elevator up to the 27th floor of Sun’s building, I promised to be on my best behavior (i.e., not to order three deserts—and only one spoon), and by floor 25, J seemed at least resigned to my company. We made our way to our table, between Sun’s huge, wall-length windows, with all the lights of Umeda twinkling beyond them, and its sleek bar that wraps around the sparklingly clean open kitchen.

I ordered a glass of cabernet (\950); J had a dry sake (\850), poured into a glass nestled in a wooden box, so the liquor ran over the sides of the glass and into the cube containing it; Y had a gin and tonic (\650). While reviewing the menu—in Japanese but with ample pictures—and deciding on a slew of Sun’s small plates, they brought us complimentary radish soup, thick and tasty, accompanied by a plate of fresh Kyoto vegetables on a bed of shaved ice with a side of salt-spiked shiso, sesame, and white miso dip. This we followed with another deliciously salty dish: earthy burdock root in a soba bean sauce.

Then came a sublime plate of grated yam potato fritters (\850), plum, moist, and crispy all at once; and a lotus root salad, combining fried and fresh slices of Japanese rancon slicked with sesame dressing (\850). Next, we ate fried tofu with boiled radish in a clear broth and slivered scallions (\950). Finally came the two large dishes: a simple grilled white seam-bream, salted and crisp-skinned (\1450) and an incredible blue cheese and minced Hokkaido beef patty wrapped in parchment paper (\1500). The waiter cut open the parchment package at the table, and we watched the steam rise up, then cut into the meaty orb, freckled with chopped scallion and hiding a hot center of melted blue cheese.

When dessert came, Okinawan molasses cake rolled with cream (\750), I kept my promise to J about being on good behavior. Inside, of course, I was fantasizing about hunching over the plate in full defensive posture and swatting my dinner companions’ hands away. But outwardly, I politely spooned modest-sized bites into my mouth, primly dapped the side of my lip, and sat back in grateful satisfaction.

Dynamic Kitchen & Bar Sun
Address & map (in Japanese) @ http://www.dynac-japan.com/sun/shop_osaka.html

Lunch: 11:30~14:00
Dinner: 17:00~23:00 (L.O.22:00) Sundays & Holidays:
Lunch: 11:30~14:00
Dinner: 17:00~22:30 (L.O.21:30)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In-Laws & Vietnamese @ Anngon

Any gaijin wife like me married to a chonan, or oldest son, knows the challenge that comes with her betrothal to a Japanese man: that as the wife of the chonan, she’s expected to take care of her in-laws when they age.

My father-in-law is a recent widower, so we try to spend as much time as we can with him. But I feel supremely fortunate that, not only is he kind and, even in his late 60’s, still handsome (a good indicator of my sweetie when he ages, I tell myself), he seems completely accepting of me as a foreign daughter-in-law. At least I think he is, although sometimes I worry that maybe he’s just being “Japanese,” showing a polite exterior, and inside, he’s horrified that his only son and eldest child married a loud-mouthed American. But we get along great—especially because, given that I speak barely any Japanese and he speaks just a little English, most of our exchanges consist of bowing and smiling at each other.

In any case, a few weeks ago, my husband and I decided to try a new branch of our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Anngon, and we invited Otoo-san (“respected father”) to join us.

We met at the Shinsabashi station and from there walked to the super-trendy minimi-senba area, where Anngon is located. Otoo-san had never eaten Vietnamese food before, and he smiled as we entered and saw the bamboo-slatted ceiling with little red lanterns adorning it, embroidered umbrellas and straw hats scatted throughout.

We ordered bottles of Vietnamese beer (¥680) and started with fresh and fried spring rolls (both ¥650), the latter particularly good, stuffed with minced pork, vegetables, and garlic and accompanied by fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, and cilantro sprigs for wrapping. We also had a mind-blowingly good papaya salad (¥880), tangy and slightly spiced, with crisp rice-crackers on the side that crackled as we piled them with the shredded salad.

We moved on to cashew chicken, with a red, barely sweet marinade (¥880) and fresh, delicious sautéed greens with a light pepper sauce (¥900). Then out came the “Hanoi Favorite” sea bass and coriander in a hot pot (¥1280), sizzling hot and loaded with shrimp sauce. My husband and father-in-law chuckled at me when I decided the strongly-scented shrimp sauce was too much for me, but they looked pretty happy to finish the dish themselves.

I thought I may have seen Otoo-san blanche when, after all that, I ordered a dessert of fried banana dumplings with vanilla ice-cream (¥450) and a Vietnamese coffee (¥680), but whatever notions he may have had about my unseemly appetite were quickly dispelled when he tasted both. The dumplings were, quite simply, to die for, and the coffee strong and delicious, coming to us as grounds in a filter over a glass of thick, sweetened condensed milk, so we could pour the water into the filter from a little iron kettle and watch the dark brew seep down into the white creamy concoction.

As the meal ended, I managed almost a full sentence in Japanese, saying “Otoo-san, oishikata-desuka?” (was it delicious?). “Yes, delicious!” he smiled hugely and answered in English, looking from me to my husband and back again.
I smiled back, happy that together as a family we were well-fed, well-cared-for, and fluent at communicating about what matters most.


Anngon Vietnamese Café
4-11-24, Minami-senba, 2nd Floor
Chuo Ku
Osaka City, Osaka

Lunch & café time: 12:00-17:00
Dinner: 17:00-23:00
Open every day

Tel: 06-6282-4567

Address and info in Japanese @ http://www.anngon.com/anngon/index.html
Map in Japanese @ http://www.anngon.com/anngon/access/index.html

Menus in Japanese and Vietnamese with pictures; Staff speaks limited English.