Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rugby Food

I took the opportunity to watch the Under-20 World Cup Rugby at Chichinobu-no-miya Stadium recently. This is a reasonable facility - it's not the best in the world, but neither is it the worst. Except for the catering arrangements, which are deplorable.

First, the beer. It's served warm, in paper cups. Now you would think that even ex-front row forwards would understand that beer looks better in clear containers (preferably glass, although I understand that this wouldn't work very well at a sports venue). Nope - chug-a-lug it in wax coated paper cups seems to be the Japan Rugby Union's approach. [Note: However, the beer is served cold in glasses in the JRFU's HQ next to the ground].

Second, other beverages. Modern sports events are all about attracting affluent fans hopefully from both genders. You want women at the ground, enjoying the game and the facilities - right? After all, this will encourage men to be interested as well ... and those women are the mothers of the next generation of players. The whole idea of entertainment seems to have escaped the operators of Chichinobu - not only the facilities for the fairer sex simply despicable, but there's no wine or other drinks available. OK, maybe some chuhai.

Now the food. Imagine the world's worst cheese burger, say a reject from the McDonalds' cooking school. Or a limp weiner on a bun that is neither hot nor remotely meaty to the taste. Pre-package these hours before the game ... and then serve them cold! As an alternative, offer Pocky.

For the love of all that's precious - get the ground operators out to some sports facilities in other countries. Sheesh, I'll pay for it if necessary! With a very large mallet, drive it into peoples' heads that the catering at an event (a four hour event on this occasion) is up to 49% of the experience. Encourage catering vans to compete with one another at the ground (think Lords). Offer training and financial rewards for crowd-pleasing vendors (think MCG). Do whatever is necessary, but please oh please bring some sanity and sensitivity to the table.

If only the little lords at the JRFU could understand that the game and the event is all about entertainment instead of a little nostaglia about boys-own adventures, drinking water out of a kettle, and a catering experience reminiscent of cold and wet days spent on the training field. Make the venue and the facilities competitive with other enterainment options.

Then the game would grow, and a Japanese bid for the World Cup might be more of a serious option for the IRB.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Shuddup, and eat your greens

I have always thought that "eat more greens" was sound advice, dispensed by wise physicians and pharmacists though the ages. However, Eat More Greens seems to doing its best to persuade people otherwise.

Now I'm all for vegetarian food - my frequent flyer profile insists on vegetarian meals, and my annual Lent fast means no meat or fish for 40 days. I adore fresh fruit and vegetables, and you can normally serve me rice any way you like.

But this little venue in the Azabu Juban may force me to change my mind. Not only does the food fail to impress, but they take their NYC East Village metaphor to bold extremes that would shock Rudy Guiliani. The furniture is mini-me sized and truly uncomfortable, and the decor could best be described as Spartan (note the uppercase).

The menu tends to cute rather than cuisine - I had a vegetable soup that had more in common with vegetable stock than minestrone, and the side rice dish was at best good roughage. The glass wine from Argentina and California may be organic, but it's far removed from viniculture.

I'm prepared to be wrong and try it one more time, but this restaurant was a disappointment. That's a pity, because places like Le Garcon de la vigne show what can be done with great produce if talented cooks are let loose. Do yourself a favor, and eat less greens.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dis-service gets me worked up

Being Australian, I often bristle at the idea that Australians don't somehow understand good customer service and that staff are too often so laid back they're walking on their hands. Tell me it isn't so, Eliza!

But as my recent experience at a well-known Chinese restaurant in Ebisu proves, we've got nothing on the Chinese! Here's how to get me going:
  1. Ignore me for 20 minutes after I arrive (not so bad, you think? I was a party of 20. That's a world-class ignore).
  2. When we both speak Japanese pretty well, pretend not to understand me until I order something expensive.
  3. Serve the last table first, and the first table last.
  4. Ignore 3 requests for Fried Rice and pretend that Chuka-don is fried.
  5. Ask me to pay, when it's obvious that some-one else is the host and has already said in three languages that they'll be paying.

I think what I encountered was an elite athlete event for the Chinese Dis-service Team. Other teams should be on notice that the Chinese team is determined to repeat their gold medal Beijing performance and is already in rigorous training.

My Stern friend tells me that they're actually on their best behavior here in Japan - in China with his daughter who speaks fluent Mandarin, the restaurant staff argued about what dishes she wanted to order!

And it was a great pity ... the food was excellent, the company stellar, and the price reasonable. But on the day that Tokyo repeats as the most Michelin-starred city on the planet, it was a reminder that good service is at least a quarter of the dining experience!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Enough is enough!


Why on earth do perfectly good eateries try to turn themselves into "brasseries" or "trattoria"? There is considerable merit in running a place with plenty of regular customers without trying to reach for a Michelin star. There are over 100,000 places that say they're in the food business in Tokyo - some will be better than others, some will be worse.

I enjoy going to Petit Tonneau in Azabu Juban - it's a sort of little tabac place that makes reasonable food. Even tasty sometimes. But when they start to rattle on as if it is a fine dining establishment, I begin to feel queasy.

The regional dishes are fun, and interesting. So far, so good. But that's where it stops, guys! My recent pissaladiere of caramelized onions, lardons, and anchovies (I think) was almost false advertising - the pastry was undercooked, the onions were not caramelised, the lardons were lean bacon cubes, and the anchovies were conspicuously absent. The Chablis (not Premier Cru or Grand, but just chablis) was over-priced at Y8000.

I'll say it again - I enjoy going there and having my steak frites etc. But it ain't ever going to compete with Joel Rabuchon.

I'd love to know when the last time Chef Phillipe Batton visited this establishment and checked on what the mostly non-French, non-Japanese staff were doing to his reputation. Actually, I think he was there in his business suit on my last visit. At least, someone who looked like him responded to me in French when I thanked the staff in that language.

p.s. Click here for the etymology of the word "restaurant" - short summary is that it comes from a vegetable soup which was restorative (fresh veges, go figure!). Dear old M. Boulanger established his soup kitchen in Paris in 1765 - until that time, most french food was pretty stodgy and dodgy. Lots of preserved stuff, salt etc, mostly meat. Thanks goodness for that Medici girl!

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Noxious Notion - Gourmet Pizza

When is "enough" enough? Of all the stupid ideas that could enter the mind of a cook ... to describe pizza as "gourmet" .... seems to me to indicate more about the audience than the kitchen.

Now I love pizza, at the right time and in the right environment. There's nothing quite so satisfying as chomping into a tasty, tomato-dripping pizza when the call is for casual dining - particularly a fresco. The different crusts are all suited to different toppings (and accompanying drinks!), and it's an excellent way to feed a ravenous crowd.

And readers of my other blog, Eating Out in Tokyo, will know that I adore gourmet food. Well-crafted, thoughtfully designed to stimulate the tongue and taste buds in a particular order, delicate flavours that wash and wave, stunning presentation that delights the other senses as well. Perhaps I'm over-doing it, but a gourmet meal uses the finest ingredients to create surprise and sensuality.

But pizza and gourmet? Finest ingredients? Delicate? I don't think so. Good pizza, combining materials that move together and that freshen up the mood and the palate, is one thing. Gourmet? That's like saying those dinky little hamburgers that are peppering menus all around the world are full of flavour and frisson. Piffle!

Pizza can be home-made, country-style, deep-dish, layered, almost anything - but gourmet? Please!

Another jaw-snapping thing: The "restaurant" at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane has the amusing name of "Gown and Glove". Heavens spare us. Nothing could be more finely designed to be repulsive and sickening than this sobriquet in a hospital. How could you eat without conjuring up all sorts of horrid images? In an almost Sweeney Todd twist, I'm now scarred for life by the very thought of this!

Monday, July 7, 2008

AA Gill being rude

Oh my goodness - I thought I was rude!!

"I sat down, touched the stickiness of a table that had been wiped with a dirty cloth, and knew instantly that you should never eat the same thing twice. Like history, food repeats itself — once is comedy, twice is vomit. It was just as I remembered it, but instead of filling us with Proustian reverie, it reminded us of how far our tongues have travelled. All those lunches, dinners and teas of the past 20 years, a motorway of food stretching round the world, speeding our expectations away from scooped out baked potatoes stuffed with sour cream and chives, away from the combo platter with 2in of boiled sweetcorn that taste like bog-wiped loofah and the coleslaw that was slimy tile grout, and the potato salad that was coleslaw but without the sophistication, and an onion loaf that was a breeze block of watery oleum, held together by oil that they’re now turning into tractor fuel.

The ribs and that barbecue flavour — such a cosmopolitan, grown-up Hollywood version of home-grown brown sauce — tasted as if they’d been boiled in an ashtray. The flavour of smoke has been so comprehensively removed from our lives that it now seems hideously like sticky, toffee-coloured emphysema. The mud pie and the chocolate milk shakes are made from that preparatory chocolate syrup that is so glossily, authentically American and appears in so many porn movies, but is potty-mouth if you’ve ever eaten real chocolate made with chocolate.

A manager man came up to the table. “Oooh, not such a good review last week, hope we’re gonna get a better one. Everything all right?” he asked cheerily over a mountain of congealing and collapsing incinerated animal bits. I smiled the smile of the apocalypse. No, it won’t be that bad, sonny. It’ll be on a whole new level of bad. This is bad from a bad place where the bad people live. This is a glutinously awful pig-swamp bad, out all on its own in the badlands. This is, to put it simply, just so you don’t forget, terribly bad food. And it’s terribly bad food from the bad past. It’s like having your mum come out with photographs of your 1980s girlfriend, and you have a look and you think, “Oh, my God, how could I ever have put that in my mouth?” "

Sunday Times

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Yes, I'm an idiot!

You'd think I'd learn. Excuse me while I pick up a large piece of timber ... you'd think (whack!)... I'd (whack!) ... bloody-well (whack!) ... learn (whack!).

One of the problems we face living in Tokyo is that it is really hard to get a bad meal. No, I mean it - almost without exception, one can walk in off the street to almost any restaurant and get a decent meal. From almost any cuisine (see one example of bad food), at almost any time of day, and usually at a reasonable price.

That's not the case in many other parts of the world, at least many parts of the civilized world. And while I've always thought of Sydney as being delightfully uncivilized, I find myself amazed at my own stupidity and sheer lack of pleasant aforethought.

Any normal person would have found their way to the little restaurant next door for a quick blue swimmer crab omelet, or some fresh whiting. Not this goose - I wandered off into Chinatown thinking some fried rice or stir-fried vegetables would be nice after travelling for 24 hours from Michigan.

And then - oh the thought bring tears to my eyes and cramps to my stomach - I hear a cute little "irrashaimase" and thoughts of sour plums danced in my head. "Ah, Japanese, that'll hit the spot". I am ashamed to say I fell for this Edo-esque temptress. Appalling (is there any way to get another "paw" syllable in there?) nonsense served with all the aplomb of a Sumo wrestler by a crew that neither spoke Japanese or cooked it.

Udon that tasted like boiled haggis shreds (strange, the chef ... let me rephrase that, the cook ... didn't look Scottish), gyoza that had been fried into nuclear waste material, long-grain rice that didn't quite stick together, and the ultimate irony - kimchi. Kimchi is not Japanese, doesn't sound Japanese, and doesn't taste Japanese.

It's quite simply beyond me why this all happened. Maybe it's jet lag, maybe it's age, but it's definitely stupidity. Learn from my mistakes - ask the concierge, find a well-known restaurant nearby, and enjoy something local delivered fresh that morning!