11 February 2012

No Mug

The essential morning view

As mentioned a while back, I've got a few "duty bound" posts to catch up on as well as a few foreign adventures. Seeing how something from the former is assisting me with the latter, that seemed like a good place to start. Also, given that it's gadget based, it's not such a departure from Japan stuff: I mean, I'd tell you about the happy minutes spent playing with the various automated toilets but hey, this is a PG-rated blog...
The essential morning view. Better with cake.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an e mail asking if I'd like to have a play with one of Lavazza's new coffee machines. Let's break that one down to the basics. I'm a freelance journalist. I work from home. Coffee is therefore about 70% of my genetic make-up.  

My "instrument" of choice is my faithful old Bialetti and there's something calming (and pleasingly ironic) about the ritual of making a stove-top espresso. While the resulting coffee helps kickstart the morning,  that 15 minutes away from the desk, from the grinding of the beans to the first satisfying , bubbling hiss as the coffee starts to dribble through, is also a chance to take a few steps back on the day, collect thoughts and regain some focus. 

As such, Lavazza had their work cut out. I love my Bialetti, I love my routine, I love (and need) my caffeine fix.  But, you know, I'm a bloke and therefore a love of gadgets comes fitted as standard and, while the Lavazza A Modo Mio doesn't come with a bidet function, a heated seat or a deodoriser - let's be honest, it would be pretty offputting if it did - it does have a steam nozzle so you can make frothy drinks.  And this makes me very happy. 


 Is it better than the Bialetti? Actually, it's pretty close, although my critical faculties pre-coffee are certainly questionable. The colour-coded pods range greatly in flavour but the red one ("dark, velvety and full-bodied") is very decent and one of the two stocked in our local Waitrose. The pod system is also, obviously, cleaner than the Bialetti: while the allotment benefits greatly from the coffee grounds, the sink, work surfaces and floor don't which is a problem if you're a clumsy bugger. And I am a clumsy bugger. 

The kettle turned its back on the newcomer

The purist / snobby side of me will always stand up for the Bialetti but, actually, the convenience of the Lavazza machine is surprisingly easy to like and the frothing of the milk is a highly enjoyable new morning ritual. Ironically, it's probably also helping me reduce my caffeine intake a little: the Bialetti is brilliant but it does, basically, make six espressos at a time and, let's face it, moderation in consumption really isn't my thing. While it might appear I've sold my soul for a compact coffee machine (I haven't, I sold it long ago for a lot less than that), it's caffeine, more sleep and something new to play with. That's got to be a thumbs up, right?

7 February 2012

Come And Have A Go...

After a couple of weeks of attempting to make sense of Japan, I've come to a decision. I can't do it. Even two, three weeks on, my senses are reeling from the experience and, without the photos to prove it all happened, I'd be pinching myself and wondering if I'd imagined it. 

Last week, I caught up with our host Mr Hama at So and he asked the inevitable question: what had been my favourite meal? I couldn't pick one then, and I couldn't pick one now. As tempting as it is to say the noodles previously blogged - and there was a wonderful purity to that meal - it would seem a little ungrateful after the amount of care and craft that went into our other dining experiences. Somewhat inevitably, when places have visiting journalists to impress, they tend to go overboard. In Japan, this translates to the "kaiseki" meal, a tasting menu of seven, eight, or more, courses. According to Mr Hama, the average Japanese person would maybe have one such meal in a year. Less is also likely: our young waiter at So last week had never had one. We did - ahem - five in three days.  

At the time, these passed with a blur and it became difficult to tell them apart in my memory. Some were certainly challenging - the main difference between Japanese and Western cuisines would be one of texture - some were instantly forgettable but others dazzled. In all cases, it's still  taken weeks of note reading and photo browsing to get my head around the flavours. And, in many cases, the mouth feel. 

I had planned to combine the meals into one post, a sort of "Best Of", but that was shaping up to be of novel length. Instead then,. it's going to have to be a series of day-by-day / meal-by-meal dissections starting with Charyu Ichimatsu.

Surrounded by a roofed mud wall and pretty garden Charyu Ichimatsu is a "ryotei" restaurant which, if I've got my notes right, is a series of private dining rooms.  A trio of kimono-clad servers presented dish after dish with incredible precision and ceremony. While some such menus would leave you reeling, clutching at your belt and vowing never to eat again, the kaiseki approach is food as fuel in the best possible sense with small dishes of intense, and often unusual flavours. 

To start, a "frozen" dish of smoked salmon, daikon and apple. The quotation marks are present because the icy finish here is actually rice powder that's been frozen and dessicated. It's a delicate start but one that leaves you smiling

Sashimi - sea bass, yellow tail and prawn - is an achingly pretty plateful. A scallop appears, barely cooked and encased in the lightest of batters. It's creamy and rich although it's also our first experience (of several) of the slightly gelatinous sauces that will feature over the next few days. 

Next comes a piece of mackerel - grilled, delicious - a sea snail - dense, chewy, surprisingly / alarmingly huge - and, slightly bizarrely, a chessboard design of sharon fruit and cheese. While visually appealing, it's not the best plate of food of the week. Nor is the next dish which can only really be described as fish custard. We think (or hope) it's roe (the translation isn't clear so all we know is it comes from somewhere around the groin) in something that resembles creme caramel, topped with enoki mushroom and a thin layer of fish stock. "Challenge" doesn't really cover it: this is a dish way outside my comfort zone and one that makes me very aware that I've now been awake for 24 hours. Amazingly the palate adjusts quickly - watch this space - but at this point, this is a difficult mouthful. 

After that, however, it's relatively plain sailing with rice - simple, perfect and further reinforcing how badly I cook rice - miso and pickles, and a fruit-topped almond tofu pudding that, to this slightly knackered traveller, is a far more enjoyable bridge between the cultures. Coming next: dinner at Sushi Koma. Which, after 30 hours without sleep, is about as apt a name as you're ever going to find...