Monday, November 9, 2015

Tokyo Eats - In the neighborhood (Picture heavy!)

Three months into our Tokyo stay and I'm finally posting about our neighborhood. It's very quiet around here, for which I'm thankful. We made a conscious decision to stay away from the boisterous and the lively after all. The only drawback is that most restaurants close at 8pm, the lights go out shortly after, and the small family-run shops and even parts of the subway station close over the weekends. We can always hop on the train if we want to go play, or walk, or if we're desperate enough, take a taxi, so I'm not complaining.

The first thing that jumps out at us in our neighborhood is Tokyo Tower.

We've been up there before, so this time around we only went up to the main observation deck and didn't pay more to go higher to the special observation deck. Still, the view was pretty nice!

And then there's Zojo-ji, which we still haven't been! I think we're lazy subconsciously saving this spot for when my parents, sister, and brother come to visit next month in December. Also, this street ends at the temple gate with a 3-way intersection, but if you were to go in the opposite direction until you can't go straight anymore, you'll find the only Denny's in the area. At least go for the parfaits, because the Denny's in Japan are way better than those at home. 

From the Shiba Daimon neighborhood, going north on the big avenue Daiichi Keihin, you'll find a Yamaya, a liquor store chain and a wisdom carried over from my JET days living out in the Japanese boonies. 

It was my first time ever in the country back in 2005, and I didn't speak a word of the language (still barely babbling even now *sniffs*). Yamaya was something of a comfort whenever I got homesick, not because of their whole aisle of whiskey (can't say the same for my colleagues though LOL!) but because of their selection of Western dry foods, think pasta, canned tomatoes, beans, Campbell's soups, etc. Of course Yamaya isn't the only store that carry these products, but they do offer much better pricing. For example, an average can of tomatoes goes for about 4-500yen at the grocery store, Yamaya offers the same brand same size for 175yen! Would you pay $4 for a single can of tomatoes? Not me!

Nowadays, they even carry Boulder Chips and Real Coconut Water, which is pretty damn impressive! Real Coconut Water is my favorite brand of coconut water, and while I definitely prefer the cans over the glass bottles (something about the glass that makes the coconut water taste funny...), I'll survive for now.

And of course we come for the liquor too :P They have my favorite sparkling sake Suzune at a fantastic price of 715yen! I've since introduced Suzune to my friend J., a bunch of hubby's other colleagues, even our other Japanese friends, and they all love it. I've tried several other brands of sparkling sake too, none has quite the silky smooth and airy light taste Suzune does. If you have access to it, definitely give it a try.

West of Daiichi Keihin is Hibiya Dori, and 2 blocks from Onarimon Station you'll find Taihouki, a Chinese joint that opened just a week after we arrived into Tokyo. The place serves up some pretty tasty dishes with the specialty being "Ebisu gyoza," that is, gigantic gyoza, tripling and quadrupling the size of your average piece.

Hubby ordered just 3 pieces of Ebisu gyoza but I was only able to eat one! The mapo tofu was yummy and tongue numbing too ^.^ The one and biggest complaint we have against the place is that it allows smoking :(

And next door to Taihouki in the basement of a building (don't know the name) is Kinu, another neighborhood gem. This mom-n-pop shop (I think it's a pair of mother-daughter who runs the place) makes some delicious okonomiyaki and other teppanyaki items. We've been several times and haven't had a bad meal here yet. Again, the problem is that it's smokers-friendly, which means we don't go as often as we would like. When we do go, we try to catch them right when they open to beat the salarymen who would smoke like a chimney.

Keep going westwards and you'll hit the Atago Green Hills towers. There are 2 of them, a Mori Tower that's much taller and squarish and a Forest Tower that's shorter and rounder.  

Japan has major space shortage, and so to compensate for lack of space they'd have to be creative with their buildings. Sometimes, that creativity backfires, and the result is counter-intuitive designs and worse fengshui. The Atago Mori Tower is an example of this. It pairs cool architecture with an afterthought of entrances. On the south side, you'd have to walk or take an escalator up along this tall brick wall, like a fortress you'd have to scale.

The east side is even worse. Right outside the door is the smoking area, think cubicles with taller walls. Did they not realize air and smoke rise too? So this exit stinks of cigarettes, all the time, which means we run away from and not walk towards it. Even if we were to hold our breaths and scramble past the cigarette smoke cloud, through the glass door we'd face with a crisscross of escalators which hubby dubbed "the meat grinder," hilarious but unfortunately not too far off.

So all this time we've been inside this building exactly twice and ate there just once, at a Thai place I'd long forgotten about because the food wasn't too memorable. The Thai noodle soup I had in Ginza, hell, the Thai dish from the Forest Tower lounge was much more authentic and better tasting!

The Atago Forest Tower is a residential building but houses a spa (facials and massages), a fitness center (gym, pool, and sento), and dining lounge that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All three are private, meaning we'd have to be accompanied as guests of a resident, and a few of hubby's colleagues happen to be residents. So out of the blue, we somehow bougie it up to the nines ^.^"

Here's the lounge where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. Hubby's colleague E. and his wife D. took us up there on a late weekday morning, after all the screaming kids have gone to school. The place usually clears out after 9am, E. said. That morning, our hosts went off to the gym leaving us alone to have breakfast. Photos aren't allowed, which was why I waited until the waiters and waitresses are out of sight :P

This was the continental breakfast buffet for 1,400yen/person. There were bite-sized pastries, toasts, baguette slices, mini croissants, and egg salad sandwiches, also cereals, unsweetened yogurt, canned and fresh fruits. Savory options included mini salad bar with leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, tuna, and potato salad. There were were also scrambled eggs and an option of meat, which was Canadian bacon when we were there.

Drink options were coffee, hot water for tea, orange and apple juices, and some kind of green vegetable juice I was too scared to try ^.^"

This was my plate, and I don't eat that much for breakfast. So considering the 1,400yen/person, it was rather expensive. E. said the continental buffet has the exact same things every single day, with the only variation being the meat (Canadian bacon, ham slices, or wieners) and the fresh fruit. There's also a Japanese breakfast option with some kind of grilled fish, rice, and miso soup for 2,000yen/person, but neither E. nor his wife has tried it.

However, lunches and dinners are an entirely different story. As expensive as their continental breakfast buffet is, their lunches and dinners are delicious and surprisingly well-priced. Hubby and I expected to pay an arm and a leg, only to learn the entrees were all about 1,500-2,000yen, with options to add soup, salad, and drink set for an additional 400-600yen. The most expensive item on the menu was the wagyu steak, and even then it was only 3,500yen, which was not too bad considering, well, wagyu steaks!

The first time we went, hubby ordered a pasta with a chicken consomme soup (basically just broth...). He loved it. 

I ordered a seasonal unagi-don set for 1,500yen, which came with miso soup and pickles. Let's just say they totally hit it out of the park and I was super impressed with the taste and quality of the food, and for only 1,500yen! My unagi-don came with ikura, chopped avocados and okra, shredded eggs, slices of boiled lotus roots, and it was freakin' delicious! I'm still kicking myself for not coming back sooner before they switched out the menu :(

And guess what, for dishes that come with rice, you can exchange white rice for brown or 7-grains rice for no charge. No charge, folks! The biggest bag of brown rice I've ever seen at the grocery store is 2kg (4.4lbs.), and the cheapest was 1,000yen ($8). Brown rice is expensive at home too, and most restaurant will charge an additional $1-2 for it!

On another occasion I decided to test them and ordered a Thai dish, a chicken pad prik pao. They passed the test. The dish was pretty authentic.

Hubby ordered the same pasta. He couldn't get enough of it! This time, soup of the day was vegetable soup.

J. was with us this second time around, and this was her dessert which she inhaled in 5 minutes.

There was also a host of appetizers for 600yen each. I'd say an average izakaya charges the about the same. This wings, fries, and onion rings combo plate was 600yen (~$4.80), pretty reasonable if you ask me. In short, I'm so sold on this lounge for lunch and dinner it's not even funny!

On another occasion, E.'s wife D. invited me to spend a weekday with her, so we went to the gym and used the sento together. Entry fee was 3,000yen/person for usage of gym, pool, and sento, but it's not an "all-day pass" like at the onsen. This means once you leave the facility, even if just to walk across the hall to the lounge for lunch, there's no reentry.

The gym has round the clock attendants, so I couldn't take photos of the interior. However, I was able to take this shot out of the floor-to-ceiling glass window for a view from the treadmills, ellipticals, and the sitting bikes.

They provide gym uniforms too, as in black track pants and gray sports shirts. The shirts were fashionably hideous, but they're made of nice and breathable material that wicks away your sweat. I did tell you this place was bougie, right?

Let's just say the sento was completely deserted on a late weekday afternoon (around 4:30pm), so I was able to sneak in some photos there. Of course cell phones and cameras are otherwise prohibited, which makes me a camera-wielding terror, I know.

Here's looking away from and then back at the entrance door (where the wooden stools are).

Here's looking away from and then back at the entry way (where the towel collection basket is).

Toiletries and other amenities are provided for, just like at the onsen. And the lockers are tall with plenty of room to hang clothing.

Here's the sento. There's only one small pool but since it was only two of us, it was nice getting the hot tub all to ourselves.

The dry sauna room and the cold water pool to cool off in. We didn't use either. I stuck my arm in the water and that was cold enough for me.

Standing showers and sitting showers. It works just like the onsen, as in you have to shower and wash up first prior to soak in the hot tub. Shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are all provided.

By the time we were done with the sento, the sun had set. So we went over to take a peek at the pool, which had a stunning clear view of Tokyo Tower all lit up. I didn't take a picture of that view though, because the glass had glares.

Here's a view from E. and D.'s apartment balcony.

One block north of the Atago Green Hills towers is Toranomon Hills tower, brand spanking new and just opened its door last June. There are a lot of good restaurants here, but best of all hubby and I go because the entire building's non-smoking, which has become a recurring theme. The biggest beef I have with Japan is her smokers. They're everywhere! And they stink even when they aren't smoking. I mean, what did I expect?

There's a Pastry Shop (and that's the name of the shop, no really) on the 1st floor, right next door to entrance of the Hyatt boutique hotel Andaz Tokyo (80,000yen/$650 a night, anyone?). The Pastry Shop has these delectable cakes and eclairs, but all are really pricey. Each slice of cake is almost twice the price as those from Ginza West, and a sitting with a pot of tea and 2 eclairs cost 3,500yen!

So as much as I love sweets, I don't indulge. We only held a small tea party with J. once at our apartment, with cakes purchased from this shop.

Meanwhile, Above Grill & Bar on the 2nd floor does this Japanese fusion afternoon tea for a really reasonable price of 2,200yen/person, with free tea refills over a 2hr limit.

This spread here is for 3 people, but as you can see that's a lot to eat.

There are 15 varieties of teas to choose from, and we each get our own little glass tea pot that pours about 1.5 cups. The service is super attentive. As soon as tea pots run low, a waiter would come around with the tea tray again for us to pick from. I think each of us must have had at least 3-4 different teas. The 2 hours went pretty quickly, and we all were pretty tea-drunk by the end of it ^.^

Next to Above Grill & Bar on the 2nd floor is this Toranomon Arbol, an Italian restaurant. J. and I went here for lunch once and didn't expect much, but to our surprise it was pretty damn tasty! Here J. ordered a lasagna for 1,500yen and I a crabmeat spaghetti for 1,700. Not too bad.

Further west and slightly south of Toranomon Hills tower, you'll find yourself a Nobu Tokyo. Hubby and I haven't been, and we probably won't go. Just don't quote me... 

The nearest big street east of Nobu Tokyo is Sakurada Dori where you'll find a Royal Host, a nicer version of Denny's right outside the Kamiyacho Station. We've been here only once because, well, it's boring diner food and they don't do parfaits like Denny's does (pretty much the only reason I go LOL!). That said, the food here is better in quality and larger in portion than Denny's. The portion really took us by surprise and I struggled to finish the giant omurice I ordered. I like that there's no smoking. There's not a separated area for smokers, even!

There's also a Jonathan's Coffee and Restaurant just across the street from the Royal Host, but my honest opinion is that it's a step down from Denny's, whereas the Royal Host is a step up.

At the corner of the intersection is Fuji Soba, a ubiquitous fast food noodles chain that serves up cheap udon, soba, and generic donburi. You pick your food at a vending machine, pay, get your meal ticket, give the meal ticket to the person at the counter, wait for your food to get made. It's an efficient in-and-out joint where you would expect to see salarymen, delivery folks, etc.

Right next door to Fuji Soba is a big Tsutaya with, what else, Starbucks. Starbucks are really taking over the world because you see them everywhere in Tokyo! Below are my matcha latte and a seasonal mango smoothie for hubby, taken back in August when we'd just arrived.

Outside one of Kamiyacho Station's smaller exits is a Chinese place with an all-you-can-eat menu. The portion was huge, but unfortunately the food was forgettable, much so I actually forgot the place's name. Oh well.

The only items I liked were this green veggies and the mapo tofu below. The rest were meh and we won't go back there again.

I was so happy to find a branch of Vie de France bakery underground inside the station. Not that this bakery is particularly special. It's decent, sure, but my attachment to it is purely sentimental. It's another memory from my JET days. The breads and sweetbreads here too became comfort food to me, one of the very few resemblances I had of home when I was in a foreign land I know nothing about.

Even then, that's not quite correct, because where in 'Murica do you find this pillow-soft pastry with apple and cream cheese filling?

Or this pastry with cream cheese and strawberry jam filling? Or these seasonal offerings of salted caramel and marron paste filling, with a dollop of butter cream on top? Or that multi-grain pastry with cream custard filling?

I know these pastries are terrible for me and my blood sugar, but... Hmm, where did they all go?

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has an attachment to this place. Just look at this! Four thirty in the afternoon and all the shelves are cleaned out!

Here are some beauties I stumbled upon walking about in the neighborhood. Aren't they gorgeous?

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