I stop off for two nights in Avignon en route for the Côte d’Azur. It’s a long journey from Annecy, made all the longer by the cancellation of my planned train and thus a hiccup in subsequent connection. I begin to suspect reverse culture shock following Japan. There’s a connection I’m told twice doesn’t exist, but as the train pulls out of the relevant station, I can see it announced on the board. A three and a half hour journey takes seven. Oh well, the scenery is pleasant enough from Annecy down into Grenoble. Mountains, oh how pretty, then shanty towns around the edge of underpasses, people living in sheds, crap estates, actual France, not the picture postcard.

Avignon itself seems built in two parts. There’s the old walled part of the city and then there’s what is beyond it. I don’t enter the beyond during those two days. I go to the Palais des Papes, wander up and around Rocher des Domes, go for lunch at Le Grand Café. I’m not sure this is the place that my friends in Haute-Savoie referred to, they suggested going for lunch in a place inside a modern art gallery. Is this it? Probably not.

My great pleasure upon sitting down is that I’m facing a large portrait photograph of Romane Bohringer. Now, Romane and myself have something of a history. Not an actual history, a quite imagined history. Romane first came to my attention in 1992  with Les Nuits Fauves, one of the first French films that had HIV/AIDS as a central theme. The subject matter was quite French, the chief protagonist (played by writer/director Cyril Collard who died of an AIDS-related condition in ’93) was apparently torn between his gay and straight natures as well as his irrepressible desires. Not to mention his impending death. Basically, it meant for most of the film he shagged whomever he wanted and didn’t take any responsibility for how his actions might affect others, in particular the entirely passionate and smitten Romane.

It’s alright for some, I possibly thought, here I am in bleak loveless London, whereas in an imagined France a man can act like an utter bastard and have no problem finding women of such calibre. Years passed and Romane would pop up in other French films from time to time. Since these were blissful times before the internet saturated us with information, when facts about French actresses were dependent on magazine and newspaper articles (and you might well miss an issue and the relevant mention), I knew very little about her.

Romane’s star was possibly most ascendant in the UK around the time of L’appartement in ’96, a film in which Vincent Cassel makes the idiotic mistake of choosing Monica Bellucci over Romane Bohringer. Oh, but Monica Bellucci, you say… I imagine a life with Monica would be very demanding. Aside from maintaining her in the custom to which she is accustomed, every single day of life would mark some slight decline in her appearance. Let’s face it, she looks great (a supermarket melon perfection) but her acting isn’t up to much. Whereas Romane seem to me to be much more of an artist, she worked with Peter Brook at a young age and, what I’m quite fond of, is that she has some mole on the side of her nose that has remained throughout her career, unlike the airbrushed lad’s mag perfection of Bellucci.

My idealised attachment with Romane was at its strongest around this time. I was living in the countryside in Japan and the local video shop had a surprisingly well-stocked back catalogue of French cinema. Rural isolation encouraged a quite wholesome and teenage fascination with Romane and eventually I wrote a short story on my return to London in which she played the role of a guardian angel, whilst the main story was about a resurrected Mithraic cult that was attempting to gain absolute power. I haven’t read it in ages, if you’re lucky, which might not be that much, it would probably read like Dan Brown reworking Iain Sinclair.

So, trying to get back to food here, as I sat down opposite the photo of Romane, I was reminded of all this. Romane and myself started with a simple olive tart and then treated outselves to an ox-cheek daube. It’s possibly a bit ambitious, I think, we’re (no, hang on, I am…) booked in for dinner in the hotel restaurant. But ox-cheek daube is one of the few French dishes I cook with any regularity and I’m keen to gauge my efforts against this local version. Well, the restaurant’s is good, but my mine is better. Phew. I don’t grudge the dish we’re eating though. It’s quite delicious and everything is swimming along with a 50cl carafe of local Côtes du Rhône.

Romane doesn’t say much. She looks great though. She’s been positioned next to another portrait of Catherine Deneuve. There’s a contrast. The restaurant is fairly quiet, some 70’s French hits play in the background, the waiting staff are fairly underemployed, there’s a relaxed laziness to the place, although I presume it would be quite busy in the summer months outside. Romane particularly appreciates dessert. I’m fond of women who eat food and she wolfs down the rest while my attention is distracted by an outburst of birdsong. I take my coffee out on the terrace.

I wander back towards the hotel, buy a winter cap, three books (the catalogue for the 1992 Fassbinder werkschau, an anthology of Bizarre – a review produced the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in the 50’s and 60’s – and the French translation of Yumeno Kyusaku’s classic Dogra Magra. Back at the hotel, I snooze off and wake up to a retrospective on tv of Marina Abramovic. I must be in France, I think, to be watching this at 4pm. I loll around, take another walk and pop into second-hand bookshop where I pick up two English books: one about Victorian women travellers and the other what appears to be a small selection of writings about Beau Brummel. I can read that over dinner I think…

Dinner is at La Vieille Fontaine where the chef is Bruno d’Angelis. I look for hotels when I’m in England, there’s an inclusive offer of dinner in the online package. Oh, why not, I think. I don’t often stay in fancy hotels, I don’t want more than a clean room, a bath and an internet connection. Bruno has his star. I am only realising now on searching that in fact this is the restaurant where Keith Floyd lunches (and then snoozes) in the recent Keith Allen documentary!

I’m feeling a bit jaded myself after lunch. Dinner should probably be a cheese sandwich and an early night. Instead, I’ve a four course seasonal mushroom tasting menu. Here’s what I ate:

Well, that’s no good, you say. I have to squint quite severely to read a word of that. It’s not a consciously bad photo. It is a photo I take as I’m standing waiting for a taxi to take me to the station the following morning. Like the other photos in this entry, it’s taken with a slightly aged mobile phone at all of 2.0 megapixels. But then, given my comments before, I wonder whether there isn’t a space left for “bad” photography when it comes to food, or perhaps no photography at all. But then, surely the writing needs to be up to par, make the food come alive. My notes of the evening don’t really help here. They are mostly concerned with:

1. Disappointment over Brummel book. It occurs to me upon reading that Brummel didn’t spend his time in Paris buying automobiles. The book in question, whilst enjoyable in its own ephemeral way, is a 1930’s guide to Paris for rich Americans with pertinent suggestions as to where they should spend there dollars on perfumes, shirts, hats and such. It’s not enough of a book to sustain me through dinner. The only available conversation in the otherwise empty restaurant is in Danish from the couple sat next to me. She dissects her lobster with the enthusiasms of a forensic gynaecologist.

2. The chairs. Chairs that are neither high-backed or armchairs. Narrow enough to grasp you around the waist, arms not quite high enough to rest your limbs upon, but quite capable of crushing your jacket. Brummel wouldn’t approve. You try leaning back, no, not much support there. They probably cost a bit. They prevent any form of relaxation. Or escape.

3. Darkness. The restaurant is excessively dark. There’s a chandelier that could be turned on but isn’t. How much of this darkness is because of Europe’s recent proscription on incandescent lightbulbs? A dimming of the day. A vision of our own decline. Time, gentlemen please…

4. The food is good, but for a mushroom themed menu, I’d like to see more mushrooms! At €90, there seems to be a need to tick certain ingredients to justify the price. In order: mushroom themselves, scallops, lobster, beef. I’d have preferred to eat rare and expensive mushrooms and forget about the rest. The scallops remind me just how badly they were cooked at Chez Didi, the tisane des carapaces with the lobster is rather astonishing, but I’m not sure it’s exactly food. The one thing that I don’t like is the jus au Merlot with the beef. It’s reduced beyond necessity, or more pertinently, beyond the point where it’s enjoyable to eat, rather than just admire as a potential oil painting medium.

When I get to my friends the next day, he asks about the meal. In conversational shorthand, I say that it was like an expensive call-girl. You could admire the technical prowess, the sheen of the stockings, the scent, the bag of tricks and moves designed to get the punter off just enough to get them keen to pay for extras. But, as I said, sometimes you probably really want Cheeky Mary down by the harbour. She has a humanity to her I couldn’t grasp in this meal. No kissing. Catherine Deneuve, possibly. Had I not eaten a large lunch earlier in the day, it probably would have sat better with me. The meal concluded, I walked upstairs to my room and lay down on the bed where I passed a fairly sleepless night, digesting, digesting…

It’s the sort of restaurant I can remember visiting with my father during childhood. We’d go on these family holidays to France that would often include a few meals at places that he’d chosen from a French Michelin guide. I don’t remember enjoying them then. The ghost of my father haunts me vaguely at such times and he certainly inhabits me when I look at myself in the mirror. Not so much the face, the stomach, whether larger or smaller. Just as I watched his girth expand and contract many times over the years.

At around 4am, I awake to an overly long psychedelic sequence in a Western called Blueberry (with Vincent Cassel, natch) and make a spectacular and profound evacuation. I feel much better after that.

When I get home to the UK, there’s an email from Lastminute.com. Here’s the picture:

What on earth is that? They look like wind-up false teeth. They march across the plate, snap at your fingers, extrude a beetroot maw. Turn up the saturation. Only £19. Where are we eating? It’s a michelin star place, lower case, you get food that looks, well, it looks very clever. It’s £19. Do you want to go or not? Well, what’s it all about? It’s fucking michelin star, what more do you need to know? That means it’s proper. I don’t know, I quite fancied the Turkish down the road. What is your problem? Thierry Henry doesn’t eat at the Turkish, Peaches Geldof doesn’t eat at the Turkish. They eat michelin star. Do they? Yes and it’s only £19. It’s also very pink. Come on, £19! What can you get at the Turkish for that? Well, a meal for two for a start. Or, you could have the mixed grill and a couple of beers. But I don’t see how anyone ever manages the mixed grill, it’s enough meat for a family of four. There’s a photo of Patsy out of EastEnders. She must have eaten there. And Martin Jol. They’re friendly in there, they even know our names now. That time we forgot the wallet, they let us come back and pay the next day. Still gave us baklava to take home. Do they do baklava at michelin star? They do petty fours, which are a bit like chocolates, except they’re not always. Not always like chocolates? Yes, they’re like dreams and aspirations spun from sugar and culinary talent that tell us that we have arrived. Where have we arrived? We have arrived in the world and are here and looking at people and people are looking at us and all is well with ourselves reflecting through and around other people. Blimey. And so on.

An Empty Plate

November 9, 2009

It’s almost six o’clock in the morning. I’m sat at a most solid kitchen table. Dawn has yet to break and I can hear a not so distant rooster. Through the window before me, lights flicker. A village, I presume, but I’ve yet to see the land in daylight. I’ll be sat here a while, so it’s sure to reveal itself to me in due course.

I realise that I am typing without looking at the keyboard. When did that happen?

Joyce (the cat, named after Grenfell. The dog is Ulysses, perhaps the other Joyce) nudges a snack-dispensing toy along the floor. Every once in a while, it gives out some small treat. She needs to lose weight, they say, but she is of a certain age and it seems reasonable enough that ladies of a certain age may also be of a certain size. All is quite calm within the house, a converted old barn with enough ceiling space within the sitting room to probably fit the entirety of my house in London. Coffee, a cigarette. Magical words from my hosts: feel free to smoke absolutely anywhere. No need for doorstep trembling or surreptitious window leaning. All is good.

Haute-Savoie, France. No longer Japan. Several weeks ago, I attended a reunion of several old school friends. Whatever happened to S., I wondered. An hour or so of internet searching narrowed it down to the village of Cernex. I spotted her peeking around the shoulder of some other local in some local newspaper. Aha! I’d not seen her since her marriage to P. some years ago. Letters exchanged, why not come and visit, my return to England softened by the thought that I’d head off soon enough for France. So I’m spending a few days here, a couple in Avignon and then down to the Cote d’Azur again.

Let’s get back to Japan. Tidy up those loose ends whilst they’re still fresh.

So, what about Fukuoka? I guess I should take more photos. What is, you might think, a food blog without photos? As I’ve said before, I have issues with photography. For a start, I find taking photographs skews my perception. Rather than look at things, I look for photographs. Contrasts, framing, colour and so on. I contain the limitless bound of my eye in a frame. I do it sometimes, but it means that I stop looking. I like looking.

We’re used to food writing being accompanied by photography, particularly on the internet where there are no issues of printing expense. Show it to me! I want to see it. I can’t help but think of pornography, or at least sexually explicit images. If I am presented with a dish, is that experience best represented by the uneaten plate, everything before me? Top off, pants down, legs spread. There you go. Oh, she was like that? Well, she looked like that. And yet the experience of the dish might most poignantly be represented by something else entirely: a flower arrangement by the wall, a view from the window, a hand resting upon a pillow, the body unshown, close up of a fork nudged across a plate, some fallen crumbs, a scrunched up napkin partly in shadow. These are the memories. Rather than the meat and two veg of it all.

I’ve never gone to bed with people thinking “I must take photographs of this right now! Do you mind?”. Introducing the camera would change the perception, bound forever in two dimensions, flattened, framed. A performance for the shady gentleman half-hidden behind the curtain. Maybe that works for you, but not for me. I like memory, its assurances and its unreliability, its imperfect humanity. When data is cheap, it’s all remembered – supposedly – all recorded, never thrown away, permanent. It doesn’t dissolve, fade, evaporate as we are all bound to do ourselves.

So, if this makes any sense, I don’t like taking photographs of food anymore than taking revealing photographs of lovers. I want a relationship with the food, I don’t want a representation. So here’s an empty plate:

Empty Plate

This empty plate, or rather pan, once contained a delicious fish, but the fish has vanished! Where? My stomach. Can you tell us about the fish? A little, I suppose, it was isaki, aka grunt or Parapristipoma trilineatum. Fished in Nagasaki, with a simple (asari) clam and tomato sauce. I was very happy to eat it. To start, I’d eaten an aubergine and blue cheese salad, except in this case the aubergine was raw. Raw? Yup, some new fangled style of Japanese aubergine that eats more like an apple. Astonishing also. These revelations occurred in the restaurant Kasa that I mentioned previously, although it’s seems just as much to trade under the name Konya Cafe, as part of a gallery/exhibition space. It was only a short walk from my hotel in Daimyo. Yes, I also had Hakata ramen, one-bite gyoza, mentaiko tempura, all manner of local goodness at various yatai (mobile food-stalls), but this is the meal that really left its impression on me. Perhaps because it was my very first upon arriving in Japan.

Yosuke was cooking alone that night. I ate at numerous similar operations in Japan, small restaurants with a central open kitchen, customers around the edge. It’s a style of eating I’d love to see more of in London. As a solitary traveller, I really don’t want a table to myself. My only disappointment with Kasa/Konya was that the singular staffing (on that night, anyway) meant that there were no desserts on offer. I made do with grappa instead…

(The dawn is making itself felt, it looks like this)

Cernex Dawn

That’s all I’m going to say about Fukuoka for now. I’ve also not quite finished with Ishigaki, or rather Iriomote, an island about 45 minutes away on high speed ferry. I had planned to stay three nights here, but a typhoon meandered its way closer and I had to leave, since boats were being cancelled and I could possibly have been marooned for several days. I found the food at my minshuku (Kanpira-so) amply generous and tasty. Breakfast might be rice and miso (for the Japanese), champuru and fried spam (for the locals), poached egg and toast (for the Englishman). All of these things for everyone. Star fruit, dragon fruit, citrus… With breakfast and dinner, there wasn’t really that much room for lunch, but I confidently strode out into the middle of what is called BIG RAIN (ooame, 大雨) for a two-hour walk up the coast and around. After two hours, a thorough soaking, I sought refuge in a bus shelter until I stopped dripping. Upon the Miyamoto’s recommendation, I went and checked out the Iriomote Café. Here for once is an actual photograph of food!

iriomote cafe

I sat there for a good three hours, sheltering from the rain, drinking beer chatting with a hiking watercolourist, another island-hopper and the waitress. It was off-season, quiet, welcoming. The cafe has been set up with view to creating as low an ecological impact as possible. It’s a very wild island. There are wind turbines outside (only one working, the waitress apologises for the rather dimly lit interior), the owner is building some holiday rooms just to the side of the café, set into the slope, they’ll recycle their water (not that there was any shortage of water on that day). They should be open by next year and some of the rooms will command a beautiful view across the small island facing and the eventual sunset. It’s looking a little bleaker on the day I visit:

Iriomote View

What about the food? Oh, that. Light, wholesome, delicately spiced taco rice. Somehow exactly what I needed! Welcome, chat, shelter, beer. All quite perfect. Thank you, Iriomote Cafe!

All in all, despite a couple of so-so experiences, I thought Ishigaki and Iriomote were quite delicious places to visit. Even A&W is tasty!

Ishigaki A&W

And next? Well, then it was Osaka and I’ll get to that, in the now I’m not sure. Although a suggestion of visiting a local cheese specialist has been made. Oh, cheese, just pop your top off there, sweetie, it’s been sometime…

It’s early on Sunday morning and the terrestrial television choices are between the under-17 FIFA World Cup (Japan vs Brazil) and a short documentary about a traditional sandal weaver. Japan are 2-1 down with 15 minutes to go, but then Brazil are doing that football thing of collapsing on the ground in utter agony, only to pop back up a minute or so later. As for the sandal maker, hmm, well that’s now turned into a rakugo (humorous story telling) performance. Further choices would be available if I trundled down to the lobby and bought a card that would allow me two flavours of pornographic ice cream and a cable film channel that can somehow claim to be premiering Men in Black in late 2009. Let’s skip that…

Again with the football. I’ve eaten two meals in Ishigaki with European claims. I have no doubt that some of the very best Italian and French food in the world is available here in Japan. Neither of these places would claim to aiming for that Michelin-style excellence. Indeed, a new volume of the Michelin guide to restaurants in Osaka and Kyoto (and Kobe?) has just come out. How on earth Michelin judge these things I don’t know and I don’t really care anyway. The whole MIchelin thing seems ridiculous to me, that dependence upon a singular critical approval is essentially anti-democratic and top-down. A restaurant loses a star, something must have gone wrong, better never to have been given it. Anyway, as these two meals had me pondering, this finickity obsession by some with producing food to please Michelin, rather than themselves or the customers, is something restaurants could do without. Masterchef Professional, the television programme with which I have a love-hate relationship, seems obsessed with this Michelin way of things. If I ever opened a top-end restaurant, I’d call it FUCK MICHELIN and have some suitably lurid tableau in the window that changed on a daily basis. Of course, they’d sue me, but since such an idea is preposterous anyway, I don’t lose much sleep over it. I do hope some Kansai chefs refuse the stars like their Tokyo counterparts. We don’t need it, maaaaaaan…..

20090512193336

Having walked past Moustache before, I thought to give it a go. Moustache does yoshoku (Japanese Western-style food) with French leanings and a fair amount of local produce. The interior is what I can only describe as late Showa into Heisei-era poodle frou-frou. Every corner of the place has some wine bottle or other food container, most often decorated with some crafty lace item, there’s no empty space for the eye to rest. It suggests a certain European legitimacy, an idealised cozy homeliness. Mitchu, the chef-owner, works in the counter-kitchen alone with his wife doing drinks and front of house. It’s relatively quiet when I walk in. Just the one other customer. I take a seat at the counter. Like many places, people relax a little when they realise that I can probably read the menu. They won’t have to translate it. Menus in Japan are sometimes written in the Roman alphabet, but it’s not really that essential. if it is done, it’s not generally done with the foreign visitor in mind, but rather as another signifier of legitimacy or aspiration. Well, the price of the bill most probably!

I order a beer and look through it. As I expect, it’s a mix of Frenchy (sort of) stuff with plenty of domestic favourites that owe something to Europe in their inspiration. I order a carpaccio of local Ishigaki beef and then again some local pork after. The beef is really quite delicious, although it’s cut a bit thick for carpaccio. The problem is that the delicacy of the beef is a bit drowned out by the dressing. Again, the pork is cooked really well in some form of curious roulade, but is served alongside some pickled onions and gherkins. Eh? I start hearing Masterchef-style comments in the voices of Michel Roux and Greg Wallace:

Michel: “He’s got the ingredients, but does he know what to do with them?”

Greg: “They don’t belong in the same culture, let alone on the same plate!”

The woman next to me is joined by a friend and in due course another male friend turns up. He’s already half-cut by seven o’clock. They’re speaking in Japanese, but occasionally he says “I can’t speak effin’ Japanese!” when one of the women tries to refine his rather rough language. Ishigaki isn’t Japan culturally and NHK/BBC received pronunciation isn’t the locals’ language of choice. I find it rather touching. He slides off the chair eventually and makes his way somewhere or another. The woman to my right offers me a glass of awamori and we get to talking. Mitchu and his wife begin to relax. By nine o’clock, service is probably pretty much over. Despite the oddities of the food, I like the place. As one of the women says, we don’t get foreigners in here. I say I’ve come because it’s called Moustache and since I have a beard, that’s as good a reason as any to try somewhere.

How do foreigners relate to each other in Japan? It’s an intriguing question. Often we ignore each other. A sense of “How dare you be in this little town or village I claim as my own! I don’t want my Japan experience tainted by interacting with outsiders!” is often pervasive. We blank each other. Look away. Don’t mess around with my powers of invisibility. As long as you don’t see another foreigner, don’t look in any mirrors, you can almost believe you are Japanese, even if no one else is convinced for a second. Over the years, I’ve caught myself feeling that way.  I now make a positive effort to smile at other foreigners, say hello, nod at least, anything other than the blanking. It’s offensive. Okay, maybe in Tokyo that’s not so essential, but here in the periphery, I think it is.

The women invite me out to sing karaoke and the night dissolves away with bottomless glasses of awamori and some light snacks. I like them. They’re about my age, probably a bit older, but wiser for it. The best word to describe them is blousy. They dress in a distinctly Japanese way, a bit like the restaurant interior, with little of that teenage cutesiness or affectation. One of them exhorts me repeatedly to marry her single friend, the single friend says it’s out of the question, the single friend and I sing sentimental enka songs together into the small hours. Songs that are all unresolved longings, bittersweet disappointments, heartbreaks and sudden partings. I’ve been in similar places before, having lived in small town Japan, but it’s the first time I’ve seen people actually dancing in them. There’s some drunken swaying, the scent of perfume, a hand upon one’s back. No one disgraces themselves and they walk me back to the hotel before jumping into a taxi together. No harm done.

A few days later, I return from Iriomote and finally break my okonomiyaki fast. I eat at Maru-Ju, a place run by an Osakan. Ah, that’s better… Outside, Typhoon Number 20 is making itself felt. It’s still a ways from here but close enough. Along the rain-lashed harbour front, I stop in at Ishigaki Gelato, a rather stylish ice-cream parlour that used local ingredients: seaweed, tofu, seasalt, black vinegar and so on as well as local fruit such as pineapple, papaya, and passion fuit. It’s good ice cream, but if anything I think they could go for it a bit more with the marine flavourings.

In the evening, I decide to head to Chez Didi (there’s a Myspace page with various videos). I spotted this place on a map earlier and looked it up. There’s an unreliable wireless connection here in the room and I managed to get a page of Google results before it conked out. The restaurant was opened by one Marc Panther (no, me neither!), a sometime model-actor-singer-producer of French-Japanese extraction who was born in Marseille. Oh? Could be good. There’s plenty of seafood around, Marseille inspiration, it’s on the harbour, maybe a glass of rosé even, pretend there isn’t a typhoon on its way…

There’s a few things that put me in a hesitant mood straight off. The welcome’s a bit off. Who is he? Will we have to explain? Can we explain? It’s understandable. This blog, for what little its chatter is worth in a world of such, purports to be about eating and food. Well, surely the traveller to Japan is always scaling the heights of gastronomic adventure. Wow! Blimey! Good Lord! Well, I’m not at all ashamed to admit that it’s not so. In Fukuoka, sometimes I was quite happy to pop down to the convenience store and sit in the hotel room watching tv and eating take-away snacks: crustless sandwiches, instant corn soup, cold noodles, curry rolls, chocolate snacks and whatever. The thought of going out and possibly facing a cool, yet polite, reception in some restaurant or street-stall where it seemed I’d have to do all the work putting people at ease. Sometimes the single diner finds it easier to eat alone and it’s not as if convenience store food is any less “authentic”. I make no excuses. Eating alone in Japan can be taxing. There’s a difference between a warm reception and a reception where every phrase from the waiting staff is by rote.

Chez Didi was a bit like the second of those. The rosé is off. Pastis? There’s Pernod. FFS! It’s not as if you can’t buy Ricard in Japan. Bouillabaisse on the menu, but not being cooked. Okay, that’s not unknown in France either. There’s far too much beef on the menu and no fish, just some seafood. The BGM is accordion music. Despite Chez Didi’s perceived (by me!) claims to French provenance, the menu is not so different from Moustache’s. Moustache offers omuraisu (a light omelette wrapped around rice). Chez Didi offers hayashi rice, a sort of beef stew stir-fry. Both of these are very tasty, but certainly not French as you know it.

The wine list is short and not Mediterranean, let alone French, enough for me. I want something crisp and light, I get an oaky New World Chardonnay by the glass. Eurgh… First up is a dish of scallops in “marinara” sauce. The scallops are okay, they could be seared a little better, but again the sauce drowns them out and the pungent garlic bread doesn’t help there either. The second course of clam pasta, on the other hand, lacks oceanic punch and is rather bland.

Michel: “No, that’s no good. You’ve wasted some delicious scallops there.” (Young chef’s crushed expression)

Greg: “It needs an extra something to help bring the flavour out.” (Vague attempt at consolation)

I try to block out the accordion music by recreating Morrissey in my head: “In a seaside town, they forgot to close you down. Come, Armageddon, come, Armageddon, come…”

To be fair, both Moustache and Chez Didi fail in some way. However, I liked Moustache, the kitsch interior, the chat of the locals, the owner’s slightly weary yet gentle face. He’d placed his catering certificates from a college in Okinawa on the wall, Chez Didi was all about Marc and his Marseillais dad, there was even a book for sale. If you wear that as a restaurant, if it’s part of your claim, you have to live up to it. Taking care of little details (choice of pastis, an Olympique de Marseille poster or two) would greatly help.

The coffee, Nespresso, was welcome though! And hard to fuck up. I see on one of those videos that it was Illy previously.

I walked back towards the hotel and popped into Amurita no Niwa for desert and a final chat. I got the impression from them that Chez Didi was somewhat out of Marc Panther’s hands these days. As one local information booklet has it, it’s “Marc Panther’s produced restaurant”. Although that probably actually mean Marc Panther the [music] producer’s restaurant. Anyway, he’s effectively put his name on it, written the book, the first version of the menu and possibly more or less walked away with the cultural, if not financial, profit. Quite possibly, there was a more Marseillais thing going on at first and it didn’t work out. Tourists didn’t find it French enough. More accordion, please! Marc is probably a pleasant enough bloke, but he needs to stop fannying around his luxury villa and keep a closer eye on the kitchen and the rosé supplies. To be frank, part of my issue with this place is (regardless of the current extent of his actual involvement) that it is a restaurant born out of financial privilege, whereas Moustache does not enjoy that cushion of advantage. He can afford to do better.

The festival is cancelled due to the typhoon. I had an excellent chocolate pavé with ice cream, some iced chai to finish. They are doing everything right there! I suspect that they possibly speak more English than I let them so fear not, lonesome traveller!

What to do today amidst the wind and rain? Well, there is an invitation from a certain lady of a certain age for lunch, but Ishigaki, like anywhere in the world, has its share of drunken promises and I shall not be too crestfallen if that comes to nowt.

There’s always A&W…

After five days in Fukuoka, I head down to Ishigaki. It’s a two hour flight and after checking in at the somewhat Provencal-coloured Abyiyan Pana hotel, I take a stroll around town.

On the plane, they show a twenty minute “gourmet” tour of Hawaii. Hawaii shares some features with the Okinawan islands. They’re both places within a country that offer the thrill of exoticism (and white beaches, turquoise water, scuba diving, fantasy weddings, spa treatments, luxury resort hotels, the possibility of an island) without the need for a passport. In fact, plenty of Okinawans emigrated to Hawaii in the 20th century. The food in Hawaii looks unappetising. There are huge slabs of steak thrown onto hot grills, but the American beef doesn’t have the camera appeal of the Japanese wagyu. It’s a sexier looking meat with all that fat marbling. Why not try loco moco? That doesn’t look good either. It might be good food for a hangover. A large fish (opakapaka?) has its body sectioned, battered and then deep-fried in the one piece. Rainbow-hued shaved ice. It’s holiday destination food. I too am going to a holiday destination.

I go into a t-shirt boutique on the shopping arcade called Achicoco and buy a couple of Okinawan pro-wrestling t-shirts. It’s some sort of cartoon parody (?) of Mexican lucha libre, although I see a poster for an actual bout later on. The wrestler has the word “Love The Beef” on his outfit, there’s the phrase “Healthy Food is Maximum Enemy”. Sold! Maybe my hopes are a bit high, but the shop owner seems a bit miserable and rather unengaging in conversation. There’s a poster for the Tropical Lovers Beach Festa this Sunday and the singer UA, who I mentioned in a previous post, is playing. Maybe. Oh well, I think, it’s off-season, you’re possibly fed up with tourists by now, looking forward to a break.

My wandering eventually takes me back to a place I spotted earlier that serves the local Ishigaki beer. The beer is good, but as for the rest of it. There’s only one member of the staff that remotely smiles. Their only real interaction with the customers is “How many of you are there?” and taking orders. They suggest eating sashimi. I decide to try kuruma (car/wheel) shrimp. Why so-called I ask? No one knows. And this is the mimiga? Yes. It’s pig’s ear, isn’t it? Yes. Come on, describe a little, tell me it tastes good, something. A smile, perhaps.

The lovely ramshackle wood interior is wasted. The restaurant is filling up whilst I’m there. I sit at the the counter, looking into the kitchen, seeing how the staff work together. I get the feeling some unresolved feud is going on. The cook’s face is sour. Everyone looks nervous. The food is edible, but I get the feeling the prawn may well be frozen from Thailand, the mozuku (a local seaweed doused in vinegar) is okay, the mimiga is drowning in a sauce that cuts out any possible taste of ear. It’s like vaguely cooked bacon rind, where I think it would be better heading towards pork scratching. A touch of crunch on the outside, melting within.

The salad dressing is decanted out of a supermarket bottle, I can see packets being opened, pre-cooked tofu flash fried in a pan. Kitchens all do it, but do you want your customers to see it? There’s nothing here that you probably couldn’t get off the shelf in any mainland Japanese city. Indifference.

A golden rule of this counter-style eating is that it’s a stage. A performance, it needs interaction between staff and customer. If the staff are silent, fine, but they need to be pre-occupied, putting their focus into something that looks like you want to eat it. They have to look like they know what they’re doing, rather than glaring at each other behind their backs. If the food is average, okay too, but then you need to compensate with some good humour, a welcoming spirit.

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I send a text to a friend in the UK with this mobile phone picture: “The local beer in this place is great, but the food lacks soul. It feels like a scene in Tampopo, how not to run a place, their welcome [there’s a section in that film about ways of saying “Irrasshaimase!” when customers walk in] convinces no one, well, not me. Fuck it, I’m going up the road for okonomiyaki!”

NOTE: Now that I’ve got a connection, I find that this place’s name, O-ri To-ri (おーりとーり) is in fact welcome in local dialect. Yeah, like whatever…

So I pay, unsatisfied, and try to find somewhere else. I consider “Moustache“, a French looking menu, just because it’s called Moustache. I’m sure you’d do the same. There’s one place I pass by once that looks promising and as I pass it by on the second trawl, I decide that they could probably manage a gin and tonic to cheer a disconsolate Englishman up.

They do! Amurita no Niwa is on the western end of the street with main market on it. A stretch of tourist tat with a local food market, as well as a few more upscale places dotted around. The gin and tonic is good, let’s wash away the taste of the previous place. I end up eating a spicy curry soba noodle soup [There’s an article here] on their recommendation. There’s an Okinawan dish called champuru and that word means mix and refers both to its blend of ingredients as well as cultural borrowings. This particuar noodle soup is a similar mix of local island produce but with a Thai-style curry base to it. And a well-executed fried egg on top to mix in. I finally start relaxing. Could be the gin, my stomach is happy, but above all, it’s having amicable surrounds.

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The restaurant was opened last year by the Miyamoto husband and wife team of Shingo and Sayuri. She’s from Ishigaki, he’s from Kyushu, they met in Tokyo. It’s a modern sort of space, light, spacious with some good art work, nice choice of books and excellent music in the background. I suppose one might think that it’s somehow not “authentic”, whatever the hell that is, aside from being consigned to a museum. No, the menu is not traditional although it’s certainly local. It’s not ur-Yaeyama cuisine, but it is being cooked by a local person and, always a good sign, she tastes as she cooks!

Later, as conversation flows, I spot a bottle of local coffee liqueur on the counter. It’s made with a base of awamori (the local rice spirit) with cocoa, local “black sugar” and coffee. I wonder whether it might make a decent alternative to Kahlua for a White Russian. We taste compare Kahlua against the local, end up making two versions of the cocktail. Suffice to say, as we suspect all along, awamori and milk are not natural bedfellows.

It seemed a popular enough choice for young people over the course of the night. People came for take-away, chatted, left. The owner of the t-shirt shop popped his head in. His shop was burgled yesterday, Shingo mentions. Eh? Yes, all his silver was taken. I say that he seemed a bit miserable when I was in there and now I can appreciate why. There was this shelf of little empty cushions with price tags. Lucky I didn’t congratulate him on his conceptual art piece. I almost did…

Later, as conversation carried on, I realised how tired I was after a sleepless night before and also how I forget how tiring it is to speak a foreign language. Two hours and I need a sorbet of English or silence to refresh the brain. With my conversation clearly turning into Japlish babble, however much I was enjoying it, I made my goodbyes and left.

Anyway, Amurita no Niwa gets my unreserved recommendation. I may very well head back this evening.

Southern Accents

September 24, 2009

Adieu, then, Keith Floyd! My previous post was made just twelve hours or so before his departure. Keith found time to squeeze in a few last glasses, oysters and partridge/grouse at Mark Hix’s restaurant in Bridport before the final call.

I’ve also made a few changes to my travel plans to Japan in a few weeks. Originally I’d planned to travel from Fukuoka to Kagoshima and then take a ferry across the island of Yakushima. A wonderful place to be sure, but I did the maths of the journey. I’d buy a week-long travel pass that would allow me to take the train to Kagoshima and then back to Osaka and I’d have the cost of the ferry as well. This would work out at around £300 in total. I was ringing the travel agent about some other detail and asked about how much it would cost to fly from Fukuoka to Amami (an island yet further south) and then back to Osaka. There weren’t any direct flights to Amami from Fukuoka so it would still involve a train to Kagoshima or a rather round about flight via Osaka or Tokyo. Well, the long and short of it was that since I am flying on a partner airline of ANA I can add on internal flights relatively cheaply and, no, I’m not going to Yakushima, Amami or even Okinawa. I’m heading yet further south, as far south as Japan gets, to the Yaeyama islands. Where?

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I’ll be flying from Fukuoka to Ishigaki and plan to divide my time between there and the nearby island of Iriomote. It’s still working out cheaper (although not that much!) than travel to Yakushima. I visited the main island of Okinawa a few years ago and thought it wonderful, despite the resort hotels and geographical dominance of the American bases. Okinawan music was the first “Japanese” music that I grew to like and I am a less than competent player of the sanshin, a three-string banjo that arrived in the islands via China and then developed in the Japanese shamisen.

Here’s the Yaeyama-born sanshin player Oshima Yasukatsu and the singer UA:

Hmm, okay let’s try for some Yaeyama music with a slightly more natural backdrop. Here’s Hatoma Kaneko and mother entertaining some visitors on rainy day:

That’s about the best I can find! Most of the videos posted are either:

  1. Lush HD video of the wonderful scenery and animals but schmaltzy BGM.
  2. Overly-produced folk music with string sections and people singing in Japanese rather than Yaeyama dialect.

Well, that’s part of the story of these islands. Okinawa is a Japanese holiday destination and, whilst I’m hoping that the Yaeyama group may have escaped some of the excesses of Okinawa central, it is one substantial means of income for the area. Better or worse? Well, I’ve no way of telling from here. But what about the food? Well, there’s possibly not much point writing about food until you arrive in a place, although I’m capable of working myself up into a state of excitement over various dishes. There’s a brief guide here.

Err, npushuu or broiled horsemeat? I’m certainly looking forward to mimigaa, a salad made from pig’s ear. Aside from a hotel breakfast or two, I didn’t eat anything in Okinawa last time that wasn’t delicious and revelatory. Including A&W root beer, for that matter!

Some searching this morning also turned up a few prized local food protects in Ishigaki. There’s the local sea salt and also an apparently much lauded chili oil made from local peppers at this small Chinese restaurant called Pengin:

A few bottles of that should cover some souvenir obligations. Not to mention that the intriguing concept of a local producer of chili flavoured mayonnaise I spotted elsewhere. Come on, chili mayonnaise with okonomiyaki? What’s not to like?

Yes, it may rain much of the time I’m there, there’s every chance of an autumn typhoon, so I might not see too much of the wild cats, mangroves and the rest. But there will certainly always be food, drink and music!

Floyd in Japan

September 14, 2009

It’s been a lazy morning in bed so far. I awoke and found myself thinking about dumplings. There was an autumnal chill to the air. Hmmm… I watched this clip of Keith Floyd. It seems Keith isn’t in the best of health at the moment. Although I can’t remember having that much interest in food at the time, I always enjoyed watching Floyd in his various tv series. I did once bump into him in the early morning, laughing and leaning into friends as they tried to hail a taxi, I said hello, they burbled something in return as they tried to negotiate the door.

Although Floyd did make it to Thailand and India, he has not yet made it to Japan. A sad loss for Japanese cuisine I think…

Ah, demiglace sauce. My first knowing encounter with this was in Japan. One form of Japanese cuisine that is frequently overlooked by food writers, travel guides and the like is yoshoku (洋食) which means Western food. It’s a style of cuisine that traces its origins to the second wave of Western contact dating from the arrival of the American Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships in 1853.

As I’ve noted before here, previous Japanese contact with the West during the 16th/17th century, such as the Portuguese Jesuits, had also left its culinary mark in Japan (e.g. tempura, kasutera cake) but this second wave, nouvelle vague even, is of particular interest to me because of its relationship to issues of Japanese modernisation, social change and so on. I am a historian – certainly not an historian – to an extent… I’ve often thought that one subject that I would like to write about if I ever returned to study would be a study of yoshoku. It’s not just a historical issue, it’s also something I love eating! Indeed, the many pounds gained during my last stay in Japan were quite possibly the result of me indulging myself at every opportunity.

So, just what is yoshoku? The term is sometimes applied to Western food, but a distinction is normally made between restaurants serving French, Italian and the like and those serving yoshoku. Whatever its debt to Western influences – demiglace sauce, fried breaded prawns, croquettes, pasta, omelettes, hamburger and the like – it is not exactly Western food. For a start, it often seems something of a time warp. It was the peak of modernity once, now it seems rather nostalgic. Of course, nostalgia works very well with food. This is food that takes you back to your mother, school lunch or carefree university days. But do Japanese people really still want to eat their pasta napolitan when supposedly more authentic Italian dishes are now readily available? I think the answer is yes-and-no. An Italian might eat spaghetti napolitan and think “WTF!?”, authenticity is not an issue for the domestic gourmand. Is it tasty? Is it as good as mum’s? I suspect that changing diets and tastes may eventually make yoshoku go the way of pie-and-mash shops but it will be sometime yet until it does.

I’d recommend anyone visiting Japan to try yoshoku at one of the more venerable establishments to be found. For a start, the ambience of these places is one of the few places that you can hear the echo of 20th century Japan, whether pre-or-post 1945. You can see this in some of the interiors shown in this documentary I’ve linked to below.

The video is in Japanese, but I hope the visual appeal is sufficient to pull you through. The general conceit is someone trying to get a recipe for the perfect demiglace sauce. Grande cuisine of the late 19th century is the primary influence on yoshoku. Although, as you can see from the final section, this French recipe has been improved through the addition of sake and soy sauce. The trail starts in Hakodate, a city in Hokkaido that was one of the treaty ports where Western contact (notably Russian, hence the Orthodox church you can see) was prominent. I once took that same overnight train to Hokkaido that she does and I can remember eating that same hamburger set meal as well! I hope the restaurant seen later on still offers that wonderful wooden cutlery! There’s then a mention of Mongolia, as the ur-hamburger, as well as the southern port of Nagasaki, where the Dutch maintained a trading station through the so-called period of Japanese seclusion and which has always been a vital point of external contact. It concludes with a stupendously enormous cooking pot of demiglace sauce…

Anyway, watch these videos, if you’d like. They’re a good introduction to the idea of Japanese Western food.

If you’re in Osaka and fancy some yoshoku, here are two places I’d recommend:

Jiyuken (自由軒): This place is to be found in the shopping sprawl around Namba. Their house dish, pictured on their website, is “Famous Curry” (Meibutsu kare) and is rice with curry sauce stirred into it. A fresh egg is broken on top for you to mix in. Possibly an acquired taste! £4.26 at the current exchange rate.

Katsui (洋食Katsui); This is further north in Unagidani, just along from Tokyu Hands on Nagahori. Map here. This restaurant is certainly a much more upmarket proposition than the old-school and functional Jiyuken. Owner Katsui Keisuke’s grand plan here was to take yoshoku out of its sometimes dusty display cabinet and serve it freshened and anew to a more style-conscious crowd. It works! Keisuke speaks good English and I’ve had my share of conversations with him over free glasses of wine. Which in no way have swayed me to post this recommendation! A set lunch with wine is available from £9.83. Or treat yourself and companion to the substantial special course lunch at £19.96 a head.

Ciao Italia

September 9, 2009

Well, despite the allure of Sicily and Portugal, I have capitulated to the fleshly, epicurean delights of Fukuoka. Once I’d been offered a flight for the heavily discounted rate of £350 (thanks, Mr T.!), I knew that I’d be unable to resist. I’ll be spending about five days in Fukuoka and then I’ll travel around other parts of Kyushu and back up to Osaka to see friends and catch the flight home.

Why Fukuoka? Of all the places I visited last year, Fukuoka was the one that I found immediately appealing. For a start, it’s the one city in Japan with a (comparatively!) vibrant street food culture. These mobile food stalls (or yatai) were once a much more common sight all over Japan, but have largely disappeared. Why? Partly because of the concerns of town councils and customers over hygiene, safety, food standards and so on. Although these yatai have faced similar challenges in Fukuoka, it’s the one city where they have become a substantial tourist attraction. What do Japanese tourists do in Fukuoka? What do Japanese tourists do anywhere in Japan? They seek out local dishes and specialities. The Japanese tourist with a flashing camera is something of a Western fallacy, the Japanese tourist with the hungry eyes is much closer to the truth.

There’s that recent story about that couple who got stung at Il Passetto in Rome. Mr Yamada’s attitude to the affair is quite exemplary, I think.

So I’ve been spending a few moments here and there (oh come on, more like several hours) thinking about where to eat. One place that I’m glad to have found is Kasa (Japanese review here), one of numerous restaurants you can find blending Italian with Japanese notes. Two appealing looking people with a very appealing looking menu. I’m also glad to have found Harris Salat’s Japanese Food Report blog again. It’s certainly one of the best Japanese food sites I’ve come across, but I lost the link when the laptop was stolen. Here’s Salat cooking the Fukuoka dish mizutaki with Tadashi Ono:

Where else? Hmm, well I’m hoping that this time round I will manage to find Ebi-chan’s cocktail bar yatai:

In the meantime, I’ll try to stay sober and lose some weight…