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!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lebanese Lethargy

So imagine you've booked a farewell function at a Lebanese restaurant near Daikanyama for 20 people. Not so difficult to think through, and surely not something to waste too many brain cells on, right?

Now let me say up front that I love good Lebanese food, and that I'm at my most pleasant at social gatherings. But our recent experience at a well-known place on Komazawa-dori was amongst the worst I've ever had the misfortune to suffer through. The food was poor - I could tell it was fresh dung because it was still warm - and the service worse.

The construction of the party plan menu was reminiscent of a Picasso painting - all the pieces were there but they bore no resemblance to life as we know it and require one to postulate dimensions outside of rational existence. Torn between culinary Cubism and Realism, the cook chose Minimalism so that all were left hungry after the mandatory 120 minutes. Now I know what Purgatory will be like: I will be in a restaurant, there will be the promise of good food, there will be plenty of good company, ... and I will find myself back in this tiresome and paper-mache slice of egotistical nonsense.

I'm thinking that small restaurants don't get bookings for 20 all that often in Tokyo, so the fact that drinks were not included in the price at first, then included, then un-included, and finally re-included convinced me that the venue is not really in the business of meeting let alone exceeding customers' expectations. In my mind, we needed one of those large kane bells you find at Japanese temples to attract the attention of the staff who were obviously bound up in one another's scintillating presence rather than worrying about the herds out in the dining area.

While the wait staff spoke Arabic and French, no-one had apparently thought to make sure there was an English speaker or - wait for it - a fluent Japanese speaker. Orders and requests seemed to vanish into a haze perhaps caused by the overwhelming odour of disinfectant that pervaded the establishment. I like "clean", and perhaps there was a sensible reason for the Pinetarsol but it really was discomforting and distressing.

A word on Lebanese wine - I am sure that there are some excellent chateau, but none of them were represented at this restaurant. Colored grape juice with a mild hint of alcohol, awful on the front and the back of the palate served in glasses that were probably made from bullet-proof fiberglass or kelvar.

Unless you're looking to court favor at a major Japanese/French auto maker, you could best serve your own interests and Tokyo gastronomy by avoiding this place. Then perhaps it will go bankrupt and painlessly vanish.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Mexican and Cuisine - 2 words that don't go together

My other blog, Dining Out in Tokyo, is reserved for good restaurants. That's admirable, but it means that I can't let rip a few choice words when something doesn't meet expectation - or is just rubbish. Therefore, Rude about Food!

A couple of friends recently removed to Tokyo from Michigan have been pushing me to try Mexican food. Living so close to the Canadian border, they are obviously experts on this sort of thing so I swallowed my pride - and a large mouthful of bile - and gave into the madness of the crowd during a recent trip to San Diego. After all, it's only 30 "miles" from Mexico so it's gotta have a higher chance of success than Grand Rapids, doesn't it?

Nonsense! Starting with a Margarita that tasted vaguely of kerosene and kicked harder than a burro, this meal was destined for failure from the moment we walked in the door. While the company was excellent (The Child Bride, The Expat, and Mrs Presidente), the whole episode was a screaming gyre into food insanity and helped me understand why so many real Mexicans are so thin. They don't like the food either!

John says that Mexican doesn't migrate "upscale" - he's right. Spices and peppers that wrestle any real flavours to the floor and then stand on their throats. Corn chips that taste more like the box they came in rather than anything resembling maize. Beans, re-fried, and slapped on a plate in a paste that resembles body wastes from a Chihuahua with gastric. Chicken suffocated to death with bitter, turgid chocolate. Oh please!

The only thing authentic about the whole 2 hours of Purgatory were the waiters. They didn't speak any version of English that I understood, and were able to ignore our table with excellent Latin flair. The food did provide one lasting flavour - acid from the reflux I suffered all evening and the next day.

I've tried Mexican in Tokyo as well at the foodie magnet Midtown. It was only slightly worse than San Diego, and far cooler as we were seated out on the deck in the chill November air. Perhaps the food was supposed to warm us up ... Tried Mexican food in London, where there was little to distinguish from a pub curry and where some-one had worked the miracle of turning wine into water.

No doubt about it - Mexican and cuisine are two words God never intended to be used together. Aghhh! So 2 thumbs down, and death to the revolution!