We returned to exploring hot appetizers. House-made shrimp gyoza are unusual -- in each, the rear half of a medium shrimp is surrounded by mildly seasoned minced pork and scallions enclosed in a lightly browned, pan-fried flour pot-sticker wrapper with the shrimp tail sticking out. These came with ponzu sauce and a bottle of Asian hot chili oil. (Mix the oil into the ponzu by drops, to wake the dish up -- it needs it, and this will make the difference between an okay dish and an exciting one.)
Kara-age, spicy fried chicken, proved a treat. Deep-fried to a mahogany shade in a flour batter, the chicken pieces were thigh meat, moist and juicy and able to take on other flavors without forgetting their own. Evidently, they'd been marinated, since the spice flavor went all through the meat. Less exciting was age nasu, deep-fried Japanese eggplant cut into wedges. It appeared to be baked and was served with a topping of bonito flakes. "When I have to put salt on something, you know it really needs help," TJ said, pouring on a dribble of soy sauce as a salt substitute.
We expanded our explorations into other menu areas. One intriguing possibility was a list of a dozen kushi-age, deep-fried kebabs on bamboo skewers, all at $2.50 or less. You do want to go here -- interesting flavors, at a bargain price. We tried the Japanese sausage skewer, which featured a couple of thick rounds of meat. "It's a hot dog!" TJ exclaimed at first bite. "No, it's coarser-ground than that, it's a, hmm..." I contradicted. "It's like a fat breakfast sausage," said Sheila. Indeed, it resembled a breakfast link seasoned like a hot dog. The skewer came with a sweet, thick dipping sauce. If we hadn't been half full on the sushi, we'd likely have ordered more kebabs -- the shiitake, the pork, and maybe the octopus or tofu.
We also tried a couple of dishes that confounded us with their exoticism. Maguro yamokake, a cold appetizer of raw tuna with grated mountain yam (which is not the same as "mountain potato," a.k.a. yama gobo, the crunchy daikon-like root veggie shaved into many creative sushi rolls) proved an advanced course in Japanese cuisine, maybe even a postgraduate course. Raw tuna cubes were topped with nori seaweed slivers and scallion rounds -- no prob there. But underneath, the yam purée looked like cream of wheat and tasted bland, starchy, and seriously slimy. (To give you an idea of its texture without getting pornographic, one Japanese recipe website suggests okra as a possible substitute. Back in the Edo period of Japanese history, women used puréed yam as a sexual lubricant but were forbidden to eat it. Taboo "man food," I guess.) Getting back to the bowl, at the edge is a blob of wasabi to stir in -- cautiously. You need that wasabi, but a spot too much can leave you gasping. You can also stir in soy sauce. Or you can order something else. If you're curious about the white yam, you can try it in less risky fashion as one of the fried kebabs, called yama imo.
Sheila was interested in the Oka-Zuke listings -- a choice of four soups with rice, garnished with seaweed, salmon, eel, or mentai -- spicy cod roe. I chose the cod roe. (Can you blame me? With fellow adventurers, how could I resist?) The broth was thin with a near-neutral flavor. Resting atop a raft of rice was a half-inch layer of cod roe, packed into a mass of gentle crunch, strong fishiness, and chili heat. "This is -- uh -- interesting," said Sheila. Though we passed the bowl around for second opinions, the dish won no converts. Once again, we were out-exoticked.
We finished back in the land of ease with donburi, a rice bowl topped with Katsu (cutlet). This was TJ's favorite breakfast when we were in Hawaii, where he'd always get it garnished with Spam. That's not an option here, so we chose a Katsu combo of breaded fried-pork fillet and lightly cooked egg to garnish the rice. Unfortunately, the pork was lean loin rather than juicy shoulder, cooked until rather dry. The rice and egg combination was gentle and pleasing. A bowl for lunch, and you'd be full well into the evening.
Just as with Spanish tapas, we didn't love every single dish and you may not either, but the full array is there to play with. Whatever your palate, you'll find some dishes that turn you on -- and you'll never be bored. It's a whole new world of tastes out there.
IN MEMORIAM: TJ BYERS (5/11/47-1/10/07)
Everything I know about Japanese food, including learning to like it, I owe to my partner TJ. In high school, he had a teenage romance with the beautiful daughter of an American GI and his Japanese Occupation--era bride. TJ's girlfriend's mother often invited him for dinner, giving him a lifelong love for her cuisine. I'd eaten sushi before we met but only learned the "inside story" by helping him make it at home -- fanning the rice, carefully stirring in seasonings taste by taste, experimenting with ingredients. (A substitution of chopped nasturtium leaves from the garden, in place of unavailable shiso, was a great hit at one party.)
The Izakaya genre of restaurant was something new to us both. My partner in life, crime, and adventure, TJ was delighted to try the most esoteric dishes on this and any other menu and then plunge into the Internet to furnish most of the research material supporting my articles. (Like the Clintons in the White House, the Reader truly got "two for the price of one.") In the words of our friend and eating companion Alma, "You two could finish each other's sentences. You could share a common perspective and echo each other to make a conclusion...You learned from each other and you taught each other all at the same time."
TJ debriefed with me for hours on end when we returned home from a restaurant, "remembering" every detail, which I wrote down quickly, before we forgot. He was the one who noticed decor, and he edited my articles before they went to the Reader's editors, suggesting lively lead paragraphs when I had writer's block (constantly), clearing out logjams of clotted "English major" prose, rearranging ideas into clearer sequences.