06 December 2019 Friday
Just a hop, skip and a jump away from our ryokan, we found this cute bakery, Les Initiés, on our first morning in Tokyo. Florian’s eyes lit up at the beautiful crusts on freshly baked breads and the glossy shine on the viennoiserie.
He was absolutely spoilt for choice and probably wished we didn’t have a nice lunch reservation to go to. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure he would have had one of everything.
He managed to narrow his choices down and went for the Choussan aux Pommes and the Pain au Chocolat.
The pain au chocolat held up well with a crisp crust that shattered nicely into buttery, flakey layers and almost molten bars of dark, bitter chocolate within. Florian especially enjoyed the cinnamon-spiced apples, cooked down to have a tender bite, generously encased within the puff pastry. The offerings of this bakery proved to not only look like perfection, they taste immaculate. You can tell that a lot of heart and soul went into each item.
Our first stop for the day was Ginza.
Tall, modern buildings flanked their busy roads, and smartly dressed men and women dotted the pavements. This area of Ginza dripped with branded labels and the smell of money. We only needed to inhale the air there to feel rich.
Since we had a bit of time to spare before our 12.30pm lunch, we decided we shop. Window shop – The most affordable kind of shopping there is!
Then slowly, we started to navigate our way to Ginza Ibuki. I’d booked a kaiseki lunch here via JPNEAZY. They made it extremely straightforward since a lot of restaurants in Japan have websites that are entirely in Japanese, or do not entertain non-Japanese speaking guests. All I had to do was book the menu that I wanted, make payment, and they proceeded to make the reservation on our behalf. All we had to do was turn up. Unless of course, you add anything extra to the menu you opted for, or order extra drinks. In which case, you’ll need to pay the additional fee after your meal.
Like many good restaurants in Japan, Ginza Ibuki was completely inconspicuous from the small street it sits on. Thankfully, just as we walked by, Florian checked GoogleMaps and was sure it was where it was. And it was!
The restaurant’s main entrance is actually within the building’s main entrance, so it’s kind of hidden.
Within seconds, they had taken our jackets and Florian’s backpack, to be stored in their cupboards, and seated along the 8-person counter where we had a full view of the chefs are work. I had little idea what to expect since I had gone for the standard kaiseki lunch menu ie the cheapest available set they offered.
Shortly after we were seated and served our warm water, we were presented with our first course – Agedashi Sesame Tofu.
A thin, crisp crust with silky soft tofu. This may be deep fried but it was ethereally light on the palate and a perfect launch into our lunch.
Next was the Sawara Fish Soup topped with thinly sliced radish and yuzu.
The succulent flesh of the Japan Spanish Mackerel made for a sweet, flavoursome soup. As sawara is a fatty fish, the citrus nature of the yuzu helped balance and soothe the heaviness of the fish.
While we happily slurped the soup, chef began to bring a fire to life. Then his skewered piece of filleted fish was brought down for the fire to sear.
Thereafter, chef added more hay(?) to the fire before taming it down to a smoke. A smoke that gently infused into the bonito. Once it had rested, he skilfully sliced it and plated the gorgeous pieces of pink-red fish before us.
The smoked bonito was served with garlic, wasabi, sea salt and a Japanese onion vinegar. Smoky, peppery, spicy and sour from all the elements eaten together highlighted the freshness of the fish. Simple yet delicious.
We then had a piece of Grilled Sea Bream topped with a ball of grated daikon, and dressed in a tare (tah-rey). Tare is a general term for a wide range of Japanese sauces for grilling and dipping. It’s a little like teriyaki sauce, often made from a mix of soy sauce, brown sugar, and mirin.
Florian found the sauce a little too sweet but eaten with the fish and radish, I found it quite pleasant. We both agreed that the fish could have gone with a couple of seconds less on the grill because it was bordering on dry, just slightly.
Next was flash fried root vegetables and scallop in a thick slurry of seaweed broth.
I enjoyed the still-crisp vegetables, having had their natural sweetness brought to the fore with the quick dip in hot oil. The diced scallop was especially ambrosian. It was nicely cooked retaining some bite and bounce and exceptionally fresh.
The starchy broth was interesting – tasty but not quite my cup of tea in terms of texture.
Our final part consisted of an assortment of pickles and a side of whitebait with some kind of citrus. It tasted very much like sudachi but they were tiny. Sudachi berries maybe? I really liked the whitebait and citrus medley.
The tamago we had watched the cook patiently making, was finally layered enough to form a thick roll, and subsequently sliced by the chef.
The tamago was served alongside the pickles and whitebait, as well as Japanese pearl rice, lovingly steamed before us, and presented before serving. There was also miso soup to wash everything down.
To cap off the savouries, we were served the ‘burnt’ rice at the bottom of the clay pot in which the rice was steamed. It was drizzled with just a touch of shoyu to become the freshest rice cracker I have ever eaten.
It was immensely fragrant and crispy. Definitely small in size but highly impactful.
Our sweet ending was sake ice-cream in monaka. We were advised to eat the ice-cream alone for our first bite, and then to close the wafers together to eat it like a sandwich.
The ice-cream was smooth and creamy with a good smack of sake flavour. Eaten with the wafer and the drizzle of sweet sauce (mitarashi sauce I believe), it transformed into a fun and textural delight.
Altogether, we had a good meal at Ginza Ibuki. Florian did find a piece of hair embedded in his monaka wafer which marred the experience slightly. Chef was extremely apologetic and made him a new one. That hiccup aside, every course was made with such care and dedication. To be able to watch the chefs and cooks working before us extended our experience and made us appreciate the fruit of their labour even more.
After lunch, we continued to wander around Ginza. We found a rather nice view of the area at the rooftop of Tokyu Department Store.
We then left for Shinjuku at around 4.30pm, just after the sun had set.
I found that the more we explored the streets of Shinjuku, the more I fell in love with the area.
We first found ourselves at Golden Gai. It had many bars all lined one after another. I believe this is the area where the LGBTQ are able to thrive most without fear of judgment.
I was happily snapping away as usual only to come across this information board that said no photographs and videos without permission. Oops. Also, no smoking, littering, drinking alcohol on the streets and loud shouting, singing or revelry.
It was interesting how on the outside, the alleys looked so quiet, almost dead. But walk past each door and look into their windows, you’ll notice a warmth that emanates; a cosy familiarity between the customers and host from the sharing of laughter, muted on our side, but surely, hearty and joyful within.
A few turns later and we found ourselves at the fully lit buildings of Tokyo’s red light district. It was filled with clubs and lounges for those seeking female or male company.
There was large buses going round in circles blasting advertisements for a certain club, with the faces of pretty boys magnified and wrapped around the bus.
It was quite crazy and different for the often reserved culture of the Japanese. We didn’t see any stars or celebrities, not that I would recognise them, but we did catch sight of a world famous creature…
We carried on over to ‘Piss Alley’ aka Memory Lane which was chockfull of yakitori and beer bars.
It was very atmospheric and the aroma of skewers of meat cooking atop hot charcoal stoves was mouth-watering.
We saw eateries stuffed with customers, all sitting shoulder to shoulder while biting into their steaming, fresh-off-the-grill dinners.
It took all the willpower we could muster not to succumb to dinner in one of these yakitori stalls, because we were on a mission set by Florian, to dinner at Ichiran Ramen. I’m not a big fan of global chains, no matter how good people say they may be. Still, Florian had sweetly given in to most of my meal requests this trip, so Ichiran it was.
There was a queue down to the basement of Shinjuku’s outlet. Perhaps it was Florian’s ‘Gaijin’ face, but they swiftly directed us up to their 6th floor where there was even more space for dining. We ordered via their vending machine which was not altogether a very straight-forward process, even with the ‘system guide’ manual pasted on it.
Basically, you put money in – enough to cover whatever you want to order. If you’re ordering two portions, tap on the screen where ‘2’ is, or if you’re ordering three portions, tap on ‘3’ etc. The point is, make sure if you’re ordering 2 bowls of special ramen, put enough money in to cover both bowls. Florian and I just ordered 1 bowl at a time.
After you’ve let the machine take your money, choose the ramen bowl you want, and whatever other sides you want. The machine will then return you your change and give you a ticket.
A server will pass you an order sheet where you can further customise your bowl ie thickness of broth, whether you want garlic, how spicy you want it to be…
Within about 10 minutes of waiting, we were seated at our individual stalls.
So, I had plain ramen with the addition of half boiled egg and woodear mushrooms. I went for a light dash, medium garlic, green onions, medium spice and firm noodles.
Even without the richness, the broth was flavourful and rich. Of course, compared to Florian’s medium richness and medium dashi, mine was really a lightweight. If I were to go to Ichiran again, I would go for extra-firm noodles and 10x spicy because medium spice didn’t give enough kick. I was disappointed that the egg yolk wasn’t as flowy as I’d have liked. It was creamy but I like mine oooooozing. I still think the ramen we had in Furano was better. Different, but better.
We returned to our hotel soon after dinner since there wasn’t much else we wanted to do in Shinjuku. Moreover, we were getting tired. I really enjoyed Shinjuku though! It was a breath of fresh air from glitzy Ginza and even Shibuya. It feels like there are multiple faces to Shinjuku – the red lights, the LGBTQ alleys, the more traditional izakayas hiding in the most unexpected nooks, the yakitori bars… It presents a side of Japan vastly different from the one bound by customs, traditions, rules, and order. In Shinjuku, at least from dusk till dawn, it is as if everyone has a place to feel at home in.