Saturday, March 29, 2008

Monkfish heaven

We fell in love with monkfish when we had our first ankimo sushi in Berkeley’s Sushi Banzai. The liver was velvety and creamy, and when dipped lightly into ponzu sauce, was quite orgasmic. J and I could never stop at one… each.

So when we got to Tokyo, one of the restaurants I had to try was Isegen, which specializes in anko nabe, a monkfish casserole that is the perfect dish to warm one up during winter or a cool spring. In fact, Isegen serves its signature dish from September to April, so we went right at the tail end of the season.

Located in the greater Marunouchi area, Isegen has been operating out of its charming wooden premises since 1830 and serving anko from the fourth generation of owners onwards (whenever that is, you do the math).

The monkfish is not a delicate, willowy creature that is easy on the eye. Its meat, not surprisingly, is correspondingly firm, yet very succulent and full of character (which is another tactful of describing its looks). Isegen’s anko nabe is a cornucopia of various cuts of anko meat and skin, as well as generous servings of mushrooms, beans, radishes, gingko nuts and other stuff, in a light broth flavoured with shoyu.

Our middle-aged server spoke no English, which didn’t stop her from trying to carry on a conversation with us, and being generally helpful, friendly and obliging. She put the pot on a small gas stove on the table, and let us admire the dish, before turning on the gas.

La di da, merrily cooking away…

After a few minutes of boiling, I dug my chopstick into the pot just as she returned from the kitchen, and she immediately shushed me, in a kind matronly way, to leave it alone and wait for it to cook (meaning, she’s going to return and tell us when it was okay to dig in).

So, what to do? Prepare for the next leg of our trip, lor.

While we waited, we had a couple of side dishes as well, the highlight, not surprisingly, was ankimo dressed in subtle miso sauce. Mmmmmmmmmm.

The anko nabe didn’t disappoint when it was finally ready. I had feared the flesh was going to be overcooked, but it remained firm, juicy and flavourful. The skin was slippery and delicious – a wonderful texture food. An unexpected find were pieces of liver, which surprisingly stood up well to the cooking. It may not have had the creaminess of raw ankimo, but it remained somewhat delicate, and equally yummy.

The non-fish parts of the nabe were also a delight, having absorbed much of the goodness of the fish and the broth.

After finishing up every last bit of the nabe, our server returned to top up the pot with more broth and shoyu. She then put some cooked rice into it and turned on the stove again. After some time, as the consistency of the rice became more congee-like, our server returned, beat up to eggs, poured it into the pot and gently mixed it in. Just as it got done, she topped the dish with a generous serving of spring onions!

The rice/congee dish was a little salty for us, but still delicious and warming. J and I have relatively light tastebuds (I even like bland), so on hindsight, we should have asked our server to use more broth than shoyu when she topped up the pot for the rice dish. Having said that, Isegen was a winner all round!

[Check out Isegen’s website for details. When anko is not in season, the menu revolves around ayu, a trout-like sweetfish, and other freshwater fish, according to the Time Out Tokyo guide.]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No cherries but plums are pretty good too

We left Japan on Sunday the 23rd, thus missing the cherry blossom season by a week or so. We had been hoping that global warming would accelerate the whole blooming process for our sakes – but who’d have though that this would be one of the coldest winters and springs of recent years? Bah!

But, as we say in these parts, ne’er mind. Shinjuku Gyoen may not be awash with a riot of colours when we walked through on Saturday, but there were enough blooms to bring plenty of smiles to old and young alike. Certainly, the plum tree was doing its darndest to make everyone forget about those pretty lil’ cherries that always seem to hog the limelight.

A crowd gathered around this grand specimen that was spreading its wings majestically and welcoming all and sundry to take shade under its gorgeous blooms. Go Plums!!

It is said that when the cherry trees are blooming, this and other favourite blossom viewing parks are packed with groups of admirers having a good ol’ fashioned party, quaffing copious amount of sake and beer, and one can hardly move among the throngs. I guess there was a sliver lining then in being a week early – Shinjuku Gyoen was not crowded on Saturday. Still, there were enough folks enjoying the fine weather…

… lounging on their mats or rope skipping.

I thought: Why should they be the only ones chilling out? I wouldn’t mind having a lie down myself, with or without (more like without, actually) mat or groundsheet. So, zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Then, *yawn*, gets up to find, hmmm, mucho mucho stuff on me back. J couldn’t stop laughing as she attempted to get rid of some of the hay. I feigned indifference, secretly cursing not bringing any sake to drown my sorrows.

Anyway, there were plenty of other flowers in the park to keep one occupied, from yellow stuff…

… to white stuff …

… to red stuff.

There’s even, can you believe it, red and white stuff from one single tree! Creepy! (In a cool way, of course.)

You might be able to tell, from my over-reliance on the word ‘stuff’, that I’m no horticulturist. So what? I bet the many folks whipping out their cameras (mainly mobile, mind you) to take pictures…

… wouldn’t be able to tell their umes from their sakuras. Or maybe they could, since they look like they could read the Japanese signs next to the trees.

There were a couple of sakura buds getting ready to burst through into the warm spring air.

Actually, it was okay to miss the cherry blossoms in their full glory. There’s always the next time. If one really needs a more immediate fix, there are lots of pictures on the Internet. Just Google it.