Friday, May 6, 2011

Found in Translation in Mount Fuji

Good evening from the middle of nowhere in Japan, just by the foothills of Mount Fuji. I was supposed to be in Manila by this weekend, but some friends were on a short visit to Japan and they'd asked me to join them for a few days. I was in need of just a little bit of R&R myself, so it didn't take much persuasion for me to readjust my schedule and change my flights to join them for at least part of their stay.


We're in my favorite restaurant (second only to L'Osier in Tokyo, which is now closed) in the rice fields with an almost perfect view of Japan's favorite mountain and spiritual home -- a place I've already brought lots of close friends who've made the 90-minute trek out of Tokyo and stayed with me in my cottage by the lake which I haven't been to in about ten months. There's very little wifi in this area but my chef-friend has wiFi for his restaurant so I'm taking advantage and doing a very quick blog entry while everyone else is talking about wine. It always amazes me how these guys can drink all kinds of wine and actually tell the country, the chateau and even the vintage they're drinking -- even through five to ten different bottles. I can tell good from bad, and New World from Old, but that's where it stops.


My favorite restaurant is about 15 minutes away from my house. No advertising, no signs, no publicity even. Everything is by word of mouth and if you didn't know about it, you'd certainly drive by nonchalantly, thinking it's just someone's regular house among rice fields. But inside is a bustling restaurant run by a young-ish chef and his family and disciples. The chef traces his roots back to a temple caretakers in Nara and also to a very old family of innkeepers on the road up Mount Fuji's climbing stations.


Inside the restaurant are a couple of private dining rooms and a small room adjacent to the kitchen with about seven seats along a well-worn but beautifully-polished counter with a watercolor painting of juicy oranges on a silk scroll -- the equivalent of a Chef's Table and usually reserved for the chef's good friends and regular patrons.


It's here I've regularly met all kinds of important personages in Japan, including Japan's richest man, the president of Japan's national opera theater (Japanese are crazy about opera), the highest-ranking sumo wrestler and a whole phalanx of company presidents and pretty famous entrepreneurs. Japan's richest man, by the way, orders the cheapest o-makase meal on the menu and shares it with his wife. Now you know why they're rich; but they're extremely nice and not a few times, they've driven up to my cottage and dropped off organic vegetables from the garden of their weekend house nearby.

Tonight I decided to take my friends here as they've come all the way from Manila for something entirely different from their usual Japan trips. They're regular visitors to Tokyo but they've never really been off the tourist track, so I thought I'd take them away from the glitz and glamour of the capital and show them a bit of real life Japan. Or at least, real life for some people.


Of course we've done the o-makase and to start off our early dinner and welcome the visitors, my chef friend opened a wonderful circa 1980 Bordeaux, followed by an Opus and a super Tuscan called Ornellaia from 2001, and then another St Emilion, a Chateau Ausone from 1976, before finally a 1989 St Julien (Grand Vin de Leoville) and a 1957 Bas Armagnac. I didn't think the 1980 St Emilion would go very well with our assorted appetizers, but it did pair excellently with everything including deep-fried sardines wrapped in shiso leaf and plum, home-made fresh yuba, and pickled sashimi squid. Of course, everything else that followed wine-wise was extremely enjoyable.

We had about fifteen courses in total including an excellent assortment of sashimi (and a piece of squid in aburi-style, which made me remember someone in Manila who told me he'd had aburi tuna for lunch today), shredded Hokkaido snow crab that was returned to its shell and then served on top of a hibachi grill, a large and tender abalone poached in its own juices, a very flavorful Japanese-style clear soup with poached fish and vegetables, and several other seafood and meat dishes, including steak to go with the bottles and bottles of red wine that everyone brought. We ended with an o-bento style dish of baby unagi done aburi-style (who would've thought I'd have so much aburi after having a BBM conversation about aburi today?) and ikura on a bed of chirashi-sushi.

"It was really difficult to skin the baby eels (unagi)," my chef friend admitted. I can only imagine.


Several times a week, the chef gets up at 2 AM to drive from his home in the village of Oshino, near Mount Fuji, to the nearest seaside port and also to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo to get the freshest seafoods. For meat, he has sources all over Japan but I must say that -- after having eaten some of the best Japanese beef in some of the best restaurants in Japan -- the choice cuts of local beef he's served freshly cut at his restaurant have been over-the-top amazing. He served a truly delicious steak tonight from what he describes as wine beef -- meaning from Koshu cows that were raised almost exclusively on wine from the nearby wine-growing region of Katsunuma. This was topped with fresh sansho (Japanese pepper) which I'd never seen before and which is almost impossible to get commercially -- brilliantly green leaves and stems bursting with the taste of the Japanese sansho pepper when you bite into it the way you would eat salad greens.

It was just wonderful -- so wonderful, in fact, that I just had to have it with a bowl of rice even if I knew chirashi sushi was being served at the end. I also love the cuts he serves for shabu-shabu as they're juicy enough to blow your mind away without being too oily or fatty. Unfortunately we didn't get any shabu-shabu tonight although I've made up my mind to ask him to prepare some for the next time I visit -- whenever that will be. And maybe some of my favorite aburi-toro (seared toro sashimi) as well. About 20 pieces on a bowl of hot white rice should do quite nicely.

Our 1957 Bas Armagnac

The first appetizer of fresh vegetables

The second appetizer of assorted seafoods and tofu

Beautiful vegetable tempura

Sashimi, including live shrimp and toro

Shredded snow crab on a hibachi grill

Assorted Japanese desserts

The wonderful 1976 Chateau Ausone

Travelife's Special Summer Issue
with Angel Aquino in Boracay
Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine's April-May 2011 issue


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