Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dinner with J - and it's bring your own food



Tonight I just returned from a pretty wonderful dinner with J. As we're both always so busy that we never seem to have time to meet, I'd jokingly told him that I'd initially budgeted about 55 minutes for dinner before moving on to the next event.

Of course, I was just teasing him. Having been brought up in an old-fashioned way, before people triple-booked themselves for an evening and made only a token appearance at each place, I'd canceled all other engagements just like a polite guest should. We had a great time and when we finally said goodbye, it was a good four hours later -- which is actually quite a feat considering most of the food arrived in the first 20 minutes and J takes about that long to eat a meal.

"They obviously want us out of here in half an hour," I whispered to J, as the second course was placed before us even before I had had a chance to take two slices of the first course.

So all the food was served in about 30 minutes but we spent another 3.5 hours just talking over refills of sake, and laughing about all kinds of things, not a few of them related to travel. And, yes, a couple of precious minutes was also spent discussing serious stuff like about luck, life and how nothing in it should ever be taken for granted. It was truly an enjoyable and extremely comfortable evening of good food and good conversation.

Wagyu, toro and sake

This dinner had been planned for over a week. It started with a pretty irresistible invitation -- at least for foodies -- to have some Japanese beef flown straight in from Tokyo sometime back, along with some toro sushi (which is just about the best sushi you can have, as far as I'm concerned) and cold sake.

The toro was to be done in three ways: as sashimi, sushi and then again as sushi in the aburi-style, which means to lightly sear the tuna with a blowtorch. The latter, by the way, is my favorite and I can have an entire dinner based purely on aburi-toro, when I'm in Tokyo. I know that's inane, but that's how much I love aburi-toro. And until tonight, I'd never found a place that served decent aburi-toro in Manila.

Toro tuna done in three ways

Who can resist an invitation to a dinner of top-grade Japanese beef and toro, especially in Manila where such quality of food is truly a rarity? Of course I agreed, and Tuesday was set for this very special dinner.

Virtual surreality

Yes, after several hundred text messages over a matter of days -- a situation that actually forced me to re-think my mobile phone plan and finally sign up for free text messaging -- we managed to find time in our busy schedules to finally meet up and have an honest-to-goodness face-to-face meal.

Until then, I'd been teasing him that he was merely a virtual character on my Blackberry, forever messaging me and sending me smiley faces but actually never making an appearance. In reality, this isn't really fair as he did invite to a wonderful Italian lunch about two weeks ago.

Perhaps I'm just expecting too much and just used to seeing my good friends more often -- and, more importantly, maybe I'm just so little used to getting along with someone so well 99% of the time purely by text and BBM. Texting is fun but it just isn't the same as seeing a friend in the flesh. By now, I've done enough of both and the virtual world just isn't good enough for me. It feels too much like a disconnect with reality.

Sake that J handcarried from Tokyo

Don't mess with my seat

Yesterday my phone beeped as I was on my way to another lunch. It was a message from J. "Can you make it at 630 pm instead of 7 pm tomorrow night? They can't cook the meat on charcoal if we come at 7 pm as the restaurant is fully-booked." J wanted to know. He was very particular about how he wanted his meat cooked, and he wanted me to try it in this very way.

I replied, teasingly: "Are you just making the reservation now? We've been talking about this dinner for a whole week. What if it had been fully booked? What was your fall-back plan? McDonald's? The Peninsula?"

"They're never allowed to give up my seat at the counter, and I kicked out the person next to me. So there -- the seats aren't the problem and we can have our meat and toro for dinner, but we just have to come earlier so they can cook it on charcoal." He replied with lots of ego jumping through the phone lines.

J was only half-joking when he said this, mind you. He does have a permanent seat at this very small and rather pricey restaurant, where lunch is very easily PhP1000 and dinner can go as high as six-figures if you run away with orders; and the restaurant is indeed not allowed to give away his seat on any day without checking with him first. No kidding. And just try reserving that corner seat and see what the restaurant has to say about it.

The first course of Matsuzaka beef

When I arrived, five minutes late, J was waiting at his usual seat and, true enough, all the seats were taken except for two next to him: one for me, and one for my Birkin. "I blocked those two seats so that we'll have a little privacy," he said. In this tiny and expensive space on a fully-booked night, that extra chair for my bag was indeed an unheard-of luxury.

Within minutes, our first course of Matsuzaka beef -- inanely tender and juicy -- was set before us. Not too long after, an entirely different kind of Japanese beef came along, equally good but not as juicy -- which was refreshing, in a way.

Two sets of extremely juicy beef would have been too much; but a plate of fatty beef and a second plate of leaner beef was just right. And through it all we had some very good cold sake that was smooth and easy on the palate. I forgot to count, but I think we had three serving bottles between us -- enough to make us relaxed but not quite drunk. A perfect combination, in other words.

Our second course of
another top-grade Japanese Tajima beef.
I'd had two slices already when J reminded me
to take a photo for the Travelife blog.

"How do you like it?" J wanted to know. He had very proprietary feelings about this restaurant and its food. And later, I realized why. Everything was indeed very good, I said. I knew this restaurant flew chefs to Japan to buy food and bring it back to Manila on a weekly basis; but still, it was a miracle the restaurant was able to supply such top quality all the way from Japan.

Handcarried from Japan

"I handcarried all of these from Japan," J said, looking just a little pleased at my obvious shock. "Those are my beef, and that's my sake."

This was probably one of the most expensive restaurants in the Philippines, and here we were, eating food in it that J had brought from Japan. When I thought about it, basically, J had supplied the food ingredients and the restaurant had merely supplied an eating space and manual labor (a real Japanese chef) for the cooking. It all seemed slightly surreal to me, but not at all in an unpleasing way.

"You should buy the restaurant from the owner," I teased him. "It'll probably be cheaper in the long run." He answered: "And add to my many problems? No thanks. I'd rather pay and pretend it's mine."

I laughed when he said this, because it was so funny but it was also so true. I had to admit: the restaurant might as well have been his. He acted like he owned the place and everyone from the chef down treated him like a demigod.

In every detail, too, he certainly had the run of the place. He even had his own set of chopsticks -- not the disposable kinds restaurants like to use, but real chopsticks reserved only for him -- and his own fruit for dessert. The restaurant kept a stash of juicy oranges for him, and later I realized that no one else got this for dessert but us. And when the bill finally came, he signed it like an autograph without even looking. J had a running tab here and apparently they never even bothered to bill him unless he asked for it.

"The remains of an orange"
- caption courtesy of J

The food in this pretty special restaurant that runs like a pricey private club, purely on word of mouth but known by every single serious foodie in town, is pretty amazing; and certainly comparable to anything served in top-quality restaurants in Japan. But what I enjoyed most, more than the food, was the conversations we had, which jumped from topic to topic and alternated between dead serious to thoughtfully reflective to inanely funny.

Even now, as I type this out, I'm trying to think of the most interesting conversations we had and I'm hard put to pinpoint exactly one topic. We talked about a thousand and one things -- lots of it connected with travel -- and most of it was memorable, only some of it inane. J had traveled all over the world as much as I had, so we had a thousand things to talk about even after a thousand texts. It was hard to believe, but J was even more entertaining than his virtual ego on my Blackberry, and I could have gone on talking for a long time.

So tonight, time flew happily. And at the end I was just sorry that this wonderful dinner will not be happening too often. That's the reality of busy people constantly on the go, with too many things happening in their lives: whether we like it or not, we will never have the luxury of time or of meeting up when we want to. In this complicated world of constant travels and neverending activities, it seems like some things just have to be done entirely by text.

TO COMMEMORATE THE RESILIENCE OF THE JAPANESE PEOPLE


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