Sunday, December 28, 2008

Reunions & Chinese @ Ajito

A few weeks ago I got back to Osaka, my husband T’s hometown, after spending a well-needed extended stay in Boston, my hometown. As T and I arrived back at our apartment near Temmabashi—after my having woken 24 hours earlier, at 3:30am EST, to embark on a 17 and ½ hour flight, a 3-hour layover, the hour-long bus trip from Kansai airport to Hommachi, and then a cab ride to our apartment—we savored our first few moments alone together after weeks of being apart. We threw our arms around each other with an abandon T, being traditionally Japanese, could not encourage in the arrival hall of Kansai airport. We kissed passionately. We gazed meaningfully into each others’ eyes. And then, we engaged in one of our relationship’s most time-honored expressions of intimacy and longing: we went out to eat.

And because T knows how to make me feel like the luckiest girl in the world, he took me to one of my favorite restaurants in Kansai: the small-but-stylish, upscale-but-not-pretentious Ajito, a “Chinese Izakaya” that I think is the best-kept secret in the Temmabashi area.

Ajito opened last year, and with its sleek wooden furnishings, gleaming half-open kitchen, and interesting displays of sparkling glass jugs holding exotic spices, eating there provides an experience chic enough to belie its title of Izakaya.

As we slid into our seats and ordered a bottle of beer (¥480), I began to smell the spices cooking, and immediately my jet-lag started to dissipate. T also ordered a sochu, of which Ajito has a whole wall of unique offerings from Kyushu, along with a selection of sake (¥380 for a glass – ¥3000 for a bottle). Then they brought us our first appetizer—pan-fried dumplings filled with minced pork, scallion, and tiny nuggets of shrimp, all wrapped in a soft, lightly oil-slicked gyoza (¥480) and marinated in a spicy pepper-and-soy dressing—and I really perked up.

We progressed onto a seafood salad, with seared salmon, shrimp, fresh lettuce, a lemon wedge, and a light dressing (¥730). We gazed longingly at the Harumaki (fried spring rolls), one of our usual favorites featuring minced pork, shitake, and other chopped vegetables (¥460), but decided three appetizers might be too much given my travel-weary state. Especially since we had our eyes on three main courses.

We feasted on plates of chicken with sweet miso sauce, peppers, and eringi and shitake mushrooms (¥730); sweet-and-spicy chicken with cashew, dried red pepper, green beans, mushrooms, and onion (¥730); and black pepper beef, stir-fried with eringi mushrooms, spring onions, and red pepper (¥880). By now, the food coma was beginning to set it, compounded by my jet-lag, so I limited myself to just one dessert: their luscious goma dango, or friend sesame dumplings, with a sweet black sesame paste tucked into fried mochi and covered with toasted white sesame seeds.

As the meal ended, we headed home happy but tired, hand-in-hand—hoping that by the time we got there, we would have digested enough of the excellent meal to engage in one other of our relationship’s most time-honored expressions of intimacy and longing.

Ajito Chinese Izakaya
Address: 大阪府大阪市中央区糸屋町1-2-3 大手前恵ビル 1F

Lunch: 11:30 - 14:00
Dinner: 17:00 - 22:00 (LO)

Closed Sundays

Tel: 06-6910-0022Fax: 06-6910-0033

Map (in Japanese) @

Menus in Japanese with pictures; Staff speaks limited English.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New Friends & Ramen @ Kinryu Ramen

Being an expat in Osaka can be lonely, even if you’re married to a lovely local, as I am. With far fewer Westerners than Tokyo or even Kobe or Kyoto (at least proportionally), and with Japan’s obsession over uchi/soto (inside/outside, or who’s part of the “group” vs. who’s just some strange anomaly talking too loudly and blanching at the site of natto), Osaka can feel isolating.

So I was thrilled when I met H, another Bostonian. I was double-thrilled when I found out we had gone to the same university (although we never met there). Then triple-thrilled when I discovered H was marrying a man from Osaka, so we could giggle and commiserate over the adventures of gaijin wifehood.

But I was truly over the moon when I found out that H’s intended runs Kansai’s famed Kinryu Ramen. For me, a woman who goes week-kneed when her husband whispers “reservations,” a new friend with “insider” access to 24-hour dining is like hitting the mother-lode. Of course, intellectually I know that “insider” access doesn’t actually mean anything, since anyone can order a bowl of ramen anytime at one of Kinryu’s five locations. But inside my own little fantasy world, the idea of entering a restaurant and having the Maitre-d’ recognize me as “in” is immensely exciting—never mind the fact that Kinryu has no Maitre-d’ and, being Japanese-language impaired, I probably couldn’t communicate with him even if it did.

In fact, Kinryu is one of the most laid-back eateries you could find. But—and here I swear I’m speaking not just as a friend of the fiancé of the son of the owner—what it lacks in red-carpet potential it more than makes up for in soup. And perfectly cooked, tender-but-still-firm noodles. And spiced-to-make-your-tongue-dance kimchee.

On one of our first new-friend-night-outs, H took me to one of Kinryu’s two Dountonburi branches. We sat crossed-legged on tatami at an informal, open-air table. Then I met her charming fiancé, whom I liked immediately, especially since he was holding steaming bowls of ramen, heaped with fresh garlic and kimchee.

As we feasted on hot, delicious soup, he told us about Kinryu. His father, of Korean descent, first opened the chain in 1982. The name means golden dragon (which explains the huge green and gilded figure jutting out from the roof above us, a favorite among picture-snapping tourists). Kinryu’s specialty is its broth, which is lighter than traditional ramen to complement the strong flavors of the restaurant’s kimchee, a “secret family recipe.”

The menu is simple: Tonkotsu ramen with pork broth (¥600) and Chashumen (¥900), featuring extra pork meat on top. Then there are the three free, unlimited toppings: fresh garlic, Kinryu’s specially-sauced hakusai kimchee, made of cabbage; and mira kimchee, uniquely spiced chives.

"The noodles are made on site,” H’s betrothed tells us. “We don't let the fire run out on the stove; we add the broth from the night before to the new soup, so the ramen gets thicker and thicker. We also cook the pork right here,” he tells us.

H and I listen, launching our chopsticks again and again into our bowls until we’re scraping the bottom with our spoons. When we’re done, I lean back, holding my knees for support. I look at H and her fiancé and think that, despite how hard it sometimes feels to live in Osaka, I’m lucky for the many treasures I’ve found here: new friends, the adventures of a land a hemisphere away from home, my loving Osakan husband, and luscious bowls of ramen, which you can slurp and savor, 24/7, under a magical golden dragon.


The main Kinryu Ramen branch is at 1-7-13 Midosuji Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku, Namba (Namba Station - Exit 14)
It’s other four locations are at:
· 1-1-18 Doutonbori, Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku, Namba
· 335 Ebisubashi, Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku, Namba
· 1-7-26 Doutonbori, Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku, Namba
· 1120 Nambasennichimae, Osaka-shi, Chuo-ku, Namba

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Tokyo Girlfriends & Turkish @ Istanbul Konak

When my brilliant and lovely friend C from Tokyo came to visit me recently in Osaka, we had very clear plans about balancing work and play. Like me, C is an American freelance writer married to a Japanese man. Combining our long histories of meeting editors’ schedules with marriage into a culture where arriving five minutes late makes you grievously tardy, we both understand the importance of being punctual. The week C came to visit, we each had writing deadlines looming, so we solemnly swore that we would work much, play little, and get everything done on time.

Just after C arrived—with hugs and sighs that it had been far too long, and then some bonding over each other’s accessories—we settled down to work at our laptops. We spent 10 minutes in intense concentration. We each typed a few words. We remembered our deadlines. And then we gave up and went shopping. After all, we had dinner reservations in five hours; how could we possibly clink kampai without new purchases to toast?

After a very productive afternoon in Horie (new gray open-toed heels for me, vintage Prada flats for C), we arrived at our dinner destination: Istanbul Konak, where my husband T was waiting. It was a Tuesday night, but the place was full. Ensconced in a low corner table surrounded by Turkish lamps and embroidered pillows for lounging, we settled in with glasses of crisp, white Turkish wine for me and C (¥650) and a bottle a Turkish beer (¥650) for T, who tried hard to look interested as we recounted in careful detail all the highlights from our day of shopping. But when the appetizers arrived, he perked up for real.

We started with spicy tomato salad (¥650) and yogurt cucumber dip (¥450), spiced with dill, garlic, and fresh mint. We had Turkish pizza (¥1100), a leaf-shaped dough with crispy edges, layered in rich cheeses, herbs, and fresh tomato slices. Then I ordered the “Tavuk Guvec” (¥900), a hardy vegetable and chicken pot, while T had “Beyti Kebab,” spicy lamb and beef wrapped in warm, delicious Turkish bread with a light pepper sauce (¥1400). Meanwhile, C had ordered a course meal (¥3150), including a rich bean soup, garlicky mousaka, white fish simmered in tomato and dill, and more. Since dessert also came with her course, I naturally didn’t want to make her feel left out, so I ordered dessert too—two, actually, and then encouraged T to order his own.

Then, just as we realized we needed a serious break before the sweets, the lights dimmed and the music started. After a moment of mild panic (was this the buildup to some announcement congratulating the two gaijin girls for eating more than previously thought possible?), out came a beautiful Japanese woman, dressed as a belly dancer in flowing robes. She had a sexy little rounded tummy, and as she shook her midriff and beamed her gracious smile, the very best part of the evening occurred: the table of 15 Japanese salarymen across the room went bonkers. They clapped. They sang. They snapped photos with their cell phones. And then to our infinite delight, they got up to dance. It looked a little like the hokey-pokey with suits and ties and a dash of metabolic syndrome, but it was totally entertaining.

T and C and I giggled and hooted and watched with delight, and by the time we were done, we were ready for our final course: two Turkish puddings infused with lemon and cardamom (¥530), one for me and one for C; two fresh-made Turkish ice-creams (¥530), one for me and one for T; and thick, unfiltered coffees, layered with sugar at the bottom (¥400)—just the shot of sweet energy that C and I needed. After all, we were on our way home, a full night of writing ahead of us before our 9am deadlines.

B Kurimoto Kensetsu Bldg., 1-11-1 Minami Horie, Nishi-ku, Osaka 550-0015 (2 min. walk from Subway Yotsubashi Line Yotsubashi Station Exit 5 or 6; 7 min. walk from Subway Midosuji Line Shinsaibashi Station)Lunch: Mon-Fri, 11:30-15:00; Sat, Sun, Holidays, 12:00-15:00Dinner: Mon-Sun, 17:30-22:30Tel: (06) 4708-0020http://www.instanbulkonak.comMap & coupon at in Japanese and English; Staff speaks English

Friday, September 5, 2008

Gaijin Spouses & Yakiniku @ Beef Rokko

In Japan, there’s something especially thrilling about new friends who share both your citizenship and passions. So I was particularly pleased when I met A, who seemed like my mirror image: He’s married to a Japanese woman, and I’m married to a Japanese man; He hails from New York and likes the Yankees (or is it the Mets? I’m not sure, but I know it’s one of those New York teams), and I’m a Bostonian, loyal to the Red Sox; He’s naturally dark-haired, and I’m a (bottle) blonde.

But most importantly, next to our lovely Japanese spouses, we both love one thing unconditionally: eating out. A and his wife even founded “Cheers English,” which helps Osakan restaurant owners welcome English speakers with translated menus and English-speaking staff. They also have a Web-site devoted to English-friendly restaurants in Kansai (

So when A offered to show me his new favorite yakiniku (or grilled meat) place, Beef Rokko in Shinsaibashi, I jumped at the chance. (Neither his wife, home with their new baby, or my husband, working late at the office, could join us—but we maintained our unstinting loyalty to them by ordering for four.) “Beef Rokko is perfect for foreigners who want to try a Japanese favorite, yakiniku, but don’t want something too far beyond their comfort zones,” A explains to me on the way there.

When we arrive at this casual eatery, we’re greeted by the owner, a Japanese man whose foreign friends call him “Harry,” he tells me, and who lived for 13 years in New York City. Harry-san speaks almost-perfect English, and he’s as welcoming as any outgoing Westerner. Not only does he provide English menus, he invites us to make substitutions if the course we want contains a kind of meat (or in my case, offal) we’re not up for trying—a flexibility I’ve never yet encountered in this rule-bound country where even asking for sauce on the side can cause panicked expressions across the entire staff.

Beef Rokko specializes in “all-you-can-eat” courses, with which you have 2 hours to feast on unlimited plates of either twelve meats (¥1970), fifteen, (¥2280), or a whopping nineteen (¥2980), the latter including endless vegetables and kimchi. They also have a la carte offerings, but “I’m not really recommending,” Harry-san tells us, because these don’t provide bottomless servings. (“This is really a man after my own heart,” I think, since he understands the importance of endless eating.) There’s also an all-you-can-drink-in-two-hours beer course for ¥1500.

Not surprisingly, we order the largest course (which may seem contradictory, since I don’t want any organs, but my fellow Americans will understand my desire to think I’m getting biggest and best choice) and bottomless beer. When the food comes, we find various cuts of lightly marinated beef, chicken, and pork, plus some surprising mini-hot-dogs (“Just like home and Fenway Franks!” I think) and sausages. We place the morsels on the smoke-filtering grill (“Now my Gap jeans and Banana Republic cami won’t smell when I leave!” I realize giddily) and watch as the cutlets sizzle to succulence: slightly crispy on the outside, melting within. We dip each piece into Rokko’s homemade sauces and wash them down with ice-cold beer. As our copious consumption winds down, we grill crisp sliced vegetables, complemented by fresh, spicy kimchi and steamed rice.

Leaving, we walk past a table of young, local male hosts, fueling up for their night of entertaining women at a nearby bar. They have tight-fitting white shirts and elaborately-styled hair, and they wave coquettishly, inviting me to visit their club. I wave back, turn saucily for the door, and then head home to my handsome Japanese salaryman husband, he of tamer hair and more modest employment, yet no less fetching. I have important news to share with him: we have another restaurant to add to our list of Kansai culinary destinations.


2-7-29 Higashi Shinsaibashi Chuo-ku, Osaka
Open 5:00pm-3:00am daily (irregular holidays)
Tel (06) 6211-8265

From Subway M19, N15
Take exit 6 at Shinsaibashi station, turn right, and then go straight.
Turn left at the 3rd corner (with Uniqlo at the corner).
Go straight; Rokko is on the right after 1st intersection.
Map @

Menus in Japanese and English; Staff speaks English.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Visiting Kyoto & Eating Ton Katsu @ Katsukara

When my friend L moved from Osaka, where I live, to Kyoto, I weighed the consequences. On one hand, she’d be further away, less available for impromptu cocktails. I’d have one less friend in Osaka, and, as any foreigner who’s lived here for a while knows, true platonic soul mates can be hard to find. After all, we live in a land where at first every gaijin seems like a potential best friend, merely because we’re both odd-man-out on the sidewalk—towards whom schoolchildren hurl awkward renditions of “I have a pen!” and away from whom adults hurriedly stare. But real friendships require more than just being co-considered an oddity on the move. So the ones that endure in Japan take on a special significance.

That was the downside of losing L to Kyoto. But on the other hand, I rationalized, it would open up a whole new slew of gastronomic adventures. After careful consideration, I chose to look on the bright side: I decided to see the plate half full.

Accordingly, a few weeks after L’s move, we met up in Kyoto for ton katsu. These breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets are part of the yoshoku food group, as New York Times columnist Norimitsu Onishi explains, “European or American dishes [that] were imported” during the Meiji Restoration “and, in true Japanese fashion, shaped and reshaped to fit local tastes.”

The best ton katsu arrives at your table crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and surrendering a perfect balance between the richness of their flakey crust and the surprising lightness high-quality oil can yield. Luckily, L knew just where we could find such a treasure in Kyoto: at a place called Katsukura. Part of the Fukunaga restaurant group, Katsukura has twelve locations throughout Kansai. From my first bite, I understood their popularity.

Actually, I had an inkling of their success when we walked in to their sanjo shin kyo goku branch on a hot, humid Thursday evening—not the kind of night that usually provokes fried food cravings—and every seat was taken. A waitress handed us menus while we waited: Japanese for L, who is maddeningly fluent; and English for me, who, despite my Osakan husband, can barely order an espresso or glass of wine in Japanese.

For a chain, even the atmosphere at Katsukura is surprisingly pleasing. This location has a wide, gently lighted main room with sleek modern angles and granite partitions, offset by wooden beams stretching across the ceiling. The room’s center is dominated by a broad wooden community-style table, which in turn is flanked by 10 or so smaller tables where eventually L and I had the good fortune to sit and feast.

First, they brought us sesame seeds in grooved bowls along with little personal pestles for us to grind our own portion, then smother with deep, sweet-and-slightly-spicy ton katsu sauce, a concoction into which we dipped our steaming cutlets when they arrived. (Each table also holds small wooden jars of mustard, pickles, yuzu dressing, and other sauces to accompany the unlimited supply of barley-flecked rice, fresh shredded cabbage, smoky miso soup, and tea that comes with every meal.) I had a set combining a traditional cutlet with a yuba-stuffed croquet: warm, milky tofu skin with peppers, mushrooms, and white beans, all tucked into a breaded, lightly fried orb (¥1440). L stuck to straight ton katsu. (¥1000). Our other choices included sirloin, chicken, prawn, or minced beef cutlets, and various seasonal set meals.

When finished, I was too full to try another dish. At first I was crestfallen, but then L reminded me of the best part of her relocation: “I’m going to be in Kyoto for a while,” she explained gently. Without her even having to spell it out, I knew exactly what she meant: we’ll have many more chances to try all Katsukura’s cutlets.


所在地 京都市中京区寺町通四条上ル
TEL 075-221-5261
営業時間 11:00~22:00
定休日 なし
Map @
Menus in Japanese and English; Staff speaks English.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Boy-Watching & Tapas @ Tucusi

Whenever I and my two closest girlfriends in Osaka, J (American) and L (British), are in the mood to combine excellent food with a night out at a bar, we don’t head for a traditional izakaya. Instead, we go to Tucusi in Umeda. Besides having delectable tapas, Tucusi has some of the nicest (and cutest) staff we’ve met, and even though they’re all Japanese, they are very patient with non-Nihongo speakers. J and I even call it “too-cutsie,” which we think is a hilariously clever play on words, all the more witty because it spans two languages. (Really, this just distracts us from the fact that J struggles through life in Kansai speaking virtually no Japanese, her MO being to talk English more loudly; and I--as I mentioned in last month’s column--can be consistently counted on to fail my language classes, my Japanese husband notwithstanding. L, the lone, proper, and fluent Brit among us two Americans, usually either smiles pityingly at us when we repeat our witticism or pretends not to hear it.)

A few weeks ago, J had broken up with boyfriend number 3,982, who was still back in the US (and whom she actually blocked on Skype, meaning they were really broken up this time), and she needed some distraction. So the three of us headed for Tucusi. We sat at one of their high tables, sandwiched between wall-length windows on one side--perfect for surveying the scene--and on the other by the bar: sleek, long, and tended by one very handsome bartender. At the far end of the restaurant is another huge glass pane, displaying the kitchen behind it, which always delights J to no end, since she says she likes to watch men cook. I’m pretty neutral on the watching-men-cook thing (although seeing my husband make a reservation gets me every time), but since the chefs at Tucusi are, well, just too cute, I welcomed the open kitchen. In fact, peering in and seeing all the slicing, chopping, and pan-frying going on, got me pretty excited, too: to eat.

Tucusi opened in August 2006, and its menu features Italian and Spanish food with Australian and Asian accents. Owner Koichi Tamaki trained for six years in Japan at French and Italian restaurants, then headed to Australia for three more years of culinary practice. Tucusi is his first restaurant (although he’s recently opened the teppanyaki bistro Tegumi, also excellent and also in Umeda). Tucusi’s menu offers a long list of small plates and tapas, grilled meats, pizzas and pastas, paella, and arroz, a rice-based dish. There’s also a full bar, plus a list of well-chosen wines, many available by either bottle or glass.

We started our meal that night with one of our favorites: seared tuna with avocado and black-pepper-caramel sauce (¥950). Then we had Schezuan-pepper fried calamari with star anise and cinnamon (¥500), and similarly flavored friend potato wedges (¥500), both of which, like the tuna, were a perfect merging of salt, sweet, and spice. Next was a small order of Guinness-soy-mirin simmered spare ribs (¥650): rich, dark, and just the barest taste of bitter from the beer. When the garlic rice fried with Japanese shallots, mushrooms, and slivered beef came out (¥1300), we didn’t think it could get any better—until we started eating the lychee sorbet (¥750) with chocolate truffles (¥700).

By the end of the meal, my Uniglo jeans were feeling a little tight, but I was looking forward to going home to my lovely husband and telling him all about my dinner. L was similarly happy, texting with her new squeeze. And J? Well, we left her at the bar, hoping she’d learn a few more words of Japanese.


Tucusi Tapas & Charcoal Grille
Pont-Nouveau BLD Level 1 2-5-30 Sonezaki Kita-ku Osaka 530-0057 (on Shin Midosuji Street)

Menus in Japanese and English; Staff speaks some English.

M-F, 12 noon – 3am
Sat & Holidays: 5pm – 3am
Sun: 5pm – 1am

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Exam Panic & Portuguese @ Portugalia

It’s the night before my end-of-semester test in Japanese class, and I’m panicking. Despite my Japanese husband, I find the language in this land impossible. Today, I even cried for the first time in school since Kindergarten, when Ben McCormack, my crush-of-the-week, ran away while I was chasing him for a kiss.

35 years later, both my heart and brain are pounding. Although I now have a man much hotter than Ben McCormack--who doesn’t make me chase him for kisses (although, being Japanese, he does discourage my penchant for public affection)--I’m facing another school-based crisis. I can’t tell my keigo from my jyusho or my ta form from my te form, and I’m miserably confused by i-keiyooshi and na-keiyooshi. Needing the kind of commiseration I know only my best friend J--an American in Osaka who doesn’t speak a word of Japanese--can offer, I do the next best thing to studying: I meet J for dinner and drinks. (Who but another American will feel totally comfortable with my completely un-PC need to complain about how the entire world doesn’t follow my lexicographical patterns?)

J and I head to Portugalia, where the food is incredible, the atmosphere chic, and the menu in English (and Japanese, if you care to try to read it, which we don’t). We get there at 9:30, and the place is still packed with a mix of well-healed expats and locals. J and I grab seats at the bar and order drinks while lingering over the menu, choosing from a wide range of wines (Y700-Y1000 a glass, Y5430-Y129,600 a bottle). We decide to start our meal with salad primavera (Y1050): fresh turnip, carrot, beet, cabbage, and cress, lightly but perfectly seasoned. Then we move on to the “Cherne à Mosteiro” a white fish-fillet fried with banana, olive oil, and Port wine (Y1890), the mix of sweet Port and bananas faultless against the salty fish and rich oil. Just as my eyes start rolling back in my head from the amazing taste (J. thinks I’m having a seizure from the stress of tomorrow’s test, until she realizes it’s just me, eating), Eduardo, Portugalia’s owner, and Clara, his charming chef, come over to chat. They explain that theirs is the only Portuguese restaurant in Japan with a Portuguese cook. They make everything from scratch, serving only authentic, all-natural dishes. In response, I order another entrée.

Actually, it’s an entrée for two. (My poor husband is at home, having worked an excruciatingly long day at his Japanese corporate job. What kind of wife would I be if I came home empty-handed?) Out comes “Frango na Púcara,” a chicken casserole simmered in a pot with white wine, Port, and brandy (Y3410). (Let’s just say that I arrive home later with less than a full serving left over.) For the finale, we have homemade Madeira ice-cream (Y600) and an espresso with a grappa chaser: sweetened coffee, drunk until it’s almost all espresso-infused sugar at cup’s bottom, then filled with a shot of liquor and downed in one fiery, delightful gulp.

Needless to say, the night is an unqualified success. I come home soothed by food, wine, and brandy--and completely unfazed by my impending test. A week later, I get my results: a 55. Yet, like my meal with J, all’s well that ends well. T, ever the supportive husband, says he’s proud of me that I understood more than half (the best perspective on an F I’ve ever heard), and we make reservations to celebrate, at Portugalia, that I have a break before the next semester of Japanese class resumes.


Plaza Umeshin Bekkan 1F
4-12-11, NishiTenma, Kita-ku, Osaka

Weekdays: Lunch, 11:30-15:00; Dinner, 18:00- 24:00
Saturdays & Holidays: Lunch, 11:30-14:30; Café, 14:30-17:30; Dinner, 18:00- 22:30
Closed Sundays

Menu in both Japanese and English; English-speaking staff.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gossip, Girlfriends, & Chocolate @ Ek Chuah Chocolatier

Rumor has it that being a foreign woman married to a Japanese man can be difficult. Surely, we’re vastly outnumbered by what some call “charisma men”: those not-totally-Adonis-type Western men who end up with knock-out Japanese women. Plus, foreign women, especially Western ones, frequently get a bad rap: we’re seen as loud, demanding, and just a few sizes wider than our Japanese counterparts.

Now, I’m definitely an outspoken, not-quite-zero-sized Western woman, and anyone who has been reading this column lately knows that I could, just possibly, be construed as occasionally demanding (at least when it comes to insisting that my lovely husband make reservations, immediately, at the latest new restaurant.) So I’m not necessarily out to debunk all myths about foreign women or wives. But I am here to tell you that there’s one thing we foreign female spouses definitely have going for us: an organization, open only to international women with Japanese partners, called the Association of Foreign Wives (AFWJ).

What I love most about AFWJ is not the tips shared about in-laws, doctors, or travel: it’s that I can always find a group of great women to go for chocolate with me.

Being an ever-eager AFWJ member, I recently invited three fellow wives to my favorite sweets café: Ek Chuah French Chocolatier, near the Tanimachi-6-chome subway stop in Osaka. Ek Chuah is in a charming, restored 200-year-old storehouse, with white plaster walls and dark wooden ceiling beams. The first floor feels like your chic great-aunt’s living room, with plush velvet chairs and antiques. On one end is the glass-walled kitchen and display cases holding fresh-made truffles, cookies, dipped fruits, salted chocolate bark, and the brilliant creation of chocolate-covered potato chips. Upstairs, tables sit beneath framed candy wrappers circa 1960-1990 from around the world, with large windows overlooking a courtyard.

Our outing to Ek Chuah comprised a diverse group, and together we ordered a slew of items as varied as our life-stages. L, my first friend in Japan who thus holds a special place in my heart (especially after she recommended me to her colorist), is a striking early 30’s Brit with short, spiky blond hair and dark pink highlights. After leaving Japanese husband #1, she’s had a string of men chasing her. P, a California girl, has been married to a sexy Japanese surfer for 20+ years. She looks 30, has a grandchild, and was wearing a purple mascara in a shade I craved. D is a new friend, a mid-Western American with flowing blond hair and great curves who recently had her first child. And then there’s me, newly 40, newly-married, new to Kansai, and always hungry.

We discussed L’s latest love over her hot chocolate with framboise liquer and “Theodore cake,” a sponge-cake layered with rich chocolate cream (Y1050 for the set). Then I grilled P on where she bought her mascara while she indulged happily in her ice-cream parfait: three rich scoops nestled between fresh fruit and a hot chocolate sauce, hardened into a candy shell and topped with sprinkles (Y998). Then D brought up politics, and I learned I actually could love a Republican, especially when she shared her banana-fudge cake with me: fresh bananas tucked into moist chocolate and topped with just-whipped cream (Y578). Sensing more political ground to cover, I was about to launch into my argument supporting gay marriage, but I got sidetracked; the waitress brought my fondue, deep chocolate mixed with my two favorite food groups--fresh cream and kirsch--and fruit for dipping (Y1785). Because I figured I needed to hydrate while eating, I also ordered a beverage: dark hot chocolate with mint liquer (Y735).

All in all, it was a perfect afternoon: great friends, great food, lots of giggling, and a few good makeup tips. It was so enjoyable, I’ve now decided that ladies who lunch are passé: next time I join my gaijin-wife-girlfriends, I’m once more going to recommend we skip the salad and move right onto dessert at Ek Chuah.


大阪市中央区谷町6-17-43 練-LEN-
TEL:06-4304-807711:00-22:00 (21:30 last order)
Closed Wednesdays
Subway stop: Tanimachi-6-chome

Menu in both Japanese and English with extensive pictures; limited English spoken by staff.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Shin Nen Blessings & Pizza @ Pomodoro Rosso

After all the magic of Japan’s traditional New Year’s food—the addictive mochi; the sweet-spicy otososan sake; the bento-like feasts my Japanese in-laws cook—I feel pretty satiated. My stomach is full, my cheeks aglow. T, my husband, even has a week off from work: time to lounge and giggle, to walk Osaka’s cold streets with his hand clutching mine, making me feel safe and warm. I have health, laughter, adventure, and love in this foreign land (plus the post-New-Year’s shoe sales starting any day)—everything a girl could ever want or need, I think gratefully.

Except one thing: pizza.

True, I’m in a country where pasta can be topped with shredded seaweed or some other incomprehensible garnish, where the pizza crust is often soggy, the cheese greasy. But I also live near Temmabashi, right around the corner from Pomodoro Rosso, where one bite can make me feel as if all is right in the world, or at least with Osaka’s sometimes-dire-seeming pizza situation. So the minute the New Year’s holiday ends, I announce to T that I have an important New Year’s resolution which I must see to immediately. I must usher in 2008 with an authentic Italian pie. At Pomodoro Rosso. Right now.

T, having been my ballast for four years now, knows exactly how to handle me in these situations. There’s only one way to deal with my food obsessions, one reaction to my mentioning, ten times by 10am, a particular meal I crave. When the restlessness starts and the sighing commences, he makes a reservation.

Reservations are not actually required at Pomodoro Rosso, and every time we’ve gone there, we’ve been able to get a table, but T’s taking no chances. The food is so good that there could one day be lines out the door, clamoring for what comes out of their huge, red-brick, wood-burning Neapolitan oven.

First, we order one of the special pizzas supplementing their regular menu (which features antipasti, pizza, pasta, meat and fish dishes, and about two dozen bottles of wine, plus glasses of wine and beer). The chef rolls and kneads and tosses a fresh ball of dough, then spreads it flat and spoons tomatoes, sausage, ricotta, and mozzarella (all imported directly from Italy). With a flick of his wrist, he adds a handful of fresh basil, then slides it onto a huge wooden spatula and into the oven, where wooden logs burn their bright red glow. When the pizza is ready, it arrives steaming at our table, the thin dough lightly crunchy on the outside but soft within, the mozzarella rich and melting.

Eventually the tremors from my carb-and-cheese craving start to ease, so I chat with the chef and taste the pasta that T has ordered. Also from the seasonal menu, the fusilli is incredible, so I eat half of it before ordering my second pie. It mixes meaty tuna, salty capers, mozzarella and ricotta, tomatoes, and crushed almonds. As I wait for our next pizza—anchovy, olive, cheese, and tomato¾the chef explains that his pies’ distinction derive from both the dough and oven. The recipe for the former he will not divulge, except to say that all its ingredients hail from Italy and he has a special technique for mixing them. But the oven he is happy to explain at length: It’s a 2-ton cavern, stoked at 400 degrees Celsius, that heats food at the same level—as opposed to from below, as do most Japanese and Western ovens—and thus imparts its delicious, slightly smoky flavor and crisp texture. But it’s what comes out of it that moves me most: one more New Year’s blessing, round and fresh and hot, waiting on a simple plate in front of me.


Pomodoro Rosso
Ristorante & Pizzeria Napoletana2-1-7 Koku-Machi
Chuo-Ku, Osaka, Japan
T/F: 06.6947.1541Lunch: 11:30-14:30 (L.O)
Dinner: 17:30-21:30 (L.O)

Menu in both Japanese and Italian, with some English spoken by staff