Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ryugetsudo Coffee Shop (柳月堂)

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been wandering around looking for a good coffee shop. There are a zillion coffee shops in Kyoto, in wildly varying styles, prices, and quality. So I’ve been looking for a good one to spend several hours reading. (I’m an academic, and I’m supposed to be on sabbatical doing some research as well as enjoying myself, after all.)

After trying a bunch, I have found that I have pretty specific requirements. I used to not care much, but I guess I’m getting old. These days I want the coffee to be decent, though I’m not a nut about this. I want a quiet atmosphere, comfortable chairs, music I like or at least don’t really hate (preferably not with singing in English, which breaks into my concentration), and no great sense of pressure to order something or give up the table. Oddly enough, I have found a great many that meet every requirement except the music: usually you get your pick of J-pop, muzak, various irritating styles of mediocre American pop, or every now and again a place with a huge range that plays it all randomly. But I have also increasingly found that it is the music that makes a place impossible: for example, I found one place that is very nice in most respects, except that they play continuous 1950s American doo-wop sort of stuff, and after an hour I feel like my brain has been blenderized.
Ryugetsudo 1
So, with some reservations, I decided to check out Ryugetsudo, an old coffee shop founded in 1953 as a sort of temple to European “classical” music.

Rules Of Sound
The first thing you have to know is that this place has definite rules. No talking, no cellphones, no typing, no anything that could disturb people listening. If you buy a pastry at the bakery downstairs, you may eat it, but you must unwrap it in the hallway before you enter the main room. Everything is organized around the music.
Ryugetsudo 6
This is also true visually. All the seating is arranged in rows facing a low dais with a piano, above which, to left and right, are large speakers made more attractive by some beautiful wooden things that spread the sound. Along one side are a lot of books and the huge record collection (records, as in vinyl, if you even know what that means any more!), and the books are basically reference works about music: work catalogues of major composers, reference works on opera, and so on.

If you wish, you may sit at a table in the back and pore through the four-volume handwritten catalogue in binders, organized A-Z by composer for three volumes, plus one volume for nothing but Mozart and Beethoven. Having found something you’d like to hear, you write the disc number and the album title (in Japanese katakana transcription) on the next open line in the music-paper notebook that sits open, and when they’ve played through to your selection you’ll hear it.

I said I had reservations, right? First of all, it’s quite a hike for me, up by Imadegawa Eiden train station, north of Kyoto University. No big deal, really, but irritating. Second, it’s expensive: you pay a “seat charge” of 500¥, so that your first cup of coffee is 500¥+550¥ = $10.50. If you have more coffee, the price per cup drops because you don't keep paying the seat charge, but that’s still an awful lot in my opinion. Third, I kind of get the heebie-jeebies about this kind of “temple of high art” stuff.

Anyway, I went.

Entering The Temple
Ryugetsudo 5
My first reaction was that the room itself is surprisingly comfortable and pleasantly studious. Most of the customers were men, which amazed me; over the course of a few hours I began to realize that most of them must be Kyodai faculty: what other group of middle-aged men in suits would sit in a classical music coffee shop for two hours on a weekday afternoon reading a book? And there aren’t a lot of women, I presume because (a) they can’t talk to each other, which is what women do at coffee shops here and probably everywhere, and (b) there aren’t almost any Kyodai faculty women, which is a disgrace. I will say that walking in and hearing a warm, vibrant recording of a Mozart piano concerto was no bad thing either.
Ryugetsudo 7
My next reaction was amused enjoyment of the service staff. They are all passably pretty young women, and they wear very soft shoes (to dampen noise), tidy white blouses with black v-neck sweaters, and pleated black skirts. They look, in fact, sort of like Japanese schoolgirls grown up and wearing a young woman’s version of the same uniform. They bring coffee and water, put it down silently, bob a curtsey, and disappear silently. Nice! (Another reason, I suspect, why the clientele is primarily male: this kind of service is not especially unusual in Japan, but when combined with monastic silence it feels slightly servile in a way that is not unpleasant for a middle-aged man like me, pleasant probably for many of them, and may perhaps feel odd for younger men and for women in general. Just a guess.) The fact that they are all young and fairly pretty makes me a little suspicious that the management are deliberately aiming at their audience, but I’m not really going to argue about it: they're not ogled or harassed or anything.

My third reaction was confusion. I decided, you see, that I should take a look at the big catalogue, because I figured this was probably a pretty good place to hear Tōru Takemitsu’s music. Takemitsu (武満 徹) was the dean of Japanese composers working in a more or less “classical” idiom. So I flip through, and there he is: one work, the Requiem for String Orchestra of 1957. Eh? This predates all his really major compositions, his leap to fame and importance in the international music scene, and all that. And he was quite prolific, too! Nothing else? And how come this hand-written catalogue still lists his dates as 1930–, when he in fact died in 1996; does this mean that nobody has called for the work in more than ten years?

This led to my fourth reaction: a mild disillusionment that coincided perfectly with my reservations about a temple to music. With a sinking heart, I turned through the pages. Yes: not a single entry for Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. Only three entries for Stravinsky. The holdout late-Romantic tonalist Sibelius, yes, some, but almost none of the only slightly more radical Richard Strauss. Lots of Shostakovich, that overrated Stalinist reactionary composer. In other words, this isn’t a temple to music, but a temple to everything Theodor Adorno described in a famous essay called “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (“Über den Fetischcharakter in der Musik und die Regression des Hörens,” 1938). All that might disturb the beautiful surfaces of the music is removed, and along with it any remaining possibility that this same beautiful music might actually challenge, disturb, shake the listeners.

Planning Pilgrimages
For all that, it’s a lovely place to sit and read Adorno on music. He would, I think, have thought this delightfully ironic, and after all he was never one to pass up the opportunity to listen to Beethoven and Mozart. I plan to spend a lot of time here, reading and listening, because despite its imperfections it is far and away the closest approach to my ideal that I have yet seen. (It also helps that if you plan to come often, you can buy a book of tickets for seat+coffee, reducing the price as much as 25% for that first cup.)

But next time I’m there for a few hours, I’m putting on Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. That'll show 'em.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Mostly Matsutake

Inspired by this post at KyotoFoodie, I decided to try matsutake mushrooms in season. The season is short, the mushrooms are much loved across Japan, and I thought I’d better try them now before I lose my chance.

Matsutake are also very, very expensive. I searched up and down at Nishiki market for what I wanted: two good mushrooms. They normally come packaged at least four or five at a time, which is too many to use all at once first time out. I was a little startled: I knew they could be expensive, but this is outrageous! Here, dead center, you can see a box (the one with a very fat mushroom, just above the blank space) marked at 15 man, which is to say 150,000¥, or $1,500.
Nishiki Matsutake 3
Okay, given what's going on in the world economy, what kind of maniac shells out $1500 for a box of mushrooms? Fortunately, you don't have to get that crazy, and I had no intention of doing so. At the same time, I didn’t want el-cheapo ones: if you’re going to have them, you want them to be decent enough that you get the flavor. In the end, I settled on a cute little box of two for a little under $30 total. Here they are:
Now what you make with these things, mostly, is either matsutake gohan (matsutake rice) or matsutake dobin mushi (matsutake steamed in a teapot). But if you’re only serving two plus a toddler, two mushrooms is a lot for either of these. So I decided to make both: neither is at all difficult, technically.

But that might get repetitive, so I decided to get interesting. From a blog entry I spotted about somebody’s dinner at a Kyoto kaiseki place, I worked out how to make a fig dengaku, which is fig with a sweet miso sauce.

Not difficult, actually, and apart from the screaming baby and mildly misbehaving toddler, it was an extremely nice meal. I don’t think I’m going to drop thirty bucks on matsutake any time soon (to say nothing of thousands!), but other than that these were very repeatable dishes, worth working on.

Matsutake Dobin Mushi
What you’re supposed to do is put chunks of matsutake into little individual teapots along with some protein (usually chicken thigh, shrimp, duck, or hamo eel) and a sake-flavored dashi stock. Then you steam the teapots for ten minutes or so. To serve, you give each person his own teapot, and put a little cup on top with a half sudachi lime. People pour the soup in the cup, squeeze sudachi on, and drink the soup and eat the chunks out of the pot.
Dobin mushi
I decided it wasn’t worth buying these little pots for a one-time thing. If we decided we adored the dish, we’d want decent pots, but it’d be crazy to buy these if we decided it was just sort of okay. So I steamed the stuff in tall teacups covered with plastic wrap, which works fine but doesn’t look as nice.
Matsutake Dobin Mushi 2
For protein, I used hamo (pike conger eel), which is sort of ubiquitous in Kyoto from late summer into autumn. You buy this pre-prepared: to make it yourself, you need a special knife and a hell of a lot of skill, and you end up with a huge amount of eel that doesn’t keep especially well, and what’s more the prepared stuff isn’t expensive.

To make 3 medium-small servings, you need 3 cups of dashi, 1 Tb soy sauce, 2 Tb mirin (sweet rice wine), 1 Tb salt, 1 matsutake mushroom, and 6 chunks of your protein, plus 3 sudachi halves (fat lime or yuzu wedges would work fine too). Combine the dashi, soy, mirin, and salt, and bring to a strong simmer. Brush (don’t wash) the matsutake and cut in half crosswise, then tear it into fat shreds with your fingers (it divides easily). Divide the mushroom pieces and meat evenly into 3 big teacups or medium coffee mugs. Prepare a steamer: I put a steamer rack in the bottom of a big pot and added water to come just a little below the rack, then bring it to a boil over high heat. Divide the hot soup across the mugs, then seal tight with plastic wrap. Carefully place them in the steamer and put on the lid. Steam over medium-high heat for ten minutes or so. Turn off heat, open the lid away from you to dissipate the steam, and very carefully remove the cups. To serve, peel off the plastic at the table (the steam smells wonderful), and have people eat the soup and the chunks with a squeeze or so of the sour citrus to taste.

I found that this dish tastes quite nice but overrated. I was expecting a powerful fragrance reminiscent of earth, as with morels or truffles. Instead, matsutake are woodsy and surprisingly subtle. I suppose you could say that a morel is to a truffle as a shiitake is to a matsutake. I generally prefer dried shiitake to fresh, because the latter strike me as having more texture than flavor, and the drying process intensifies the flavor effectively without unduly damaging the texture. So maybe it’s just that matsutake aren’t my thing?

I’d love to try this dish with fresh morels: the blast of earthy fragrance would be heavenly, I expect. Obviously it’d work well with truffles too. I do think you’d want something a little more forceful than dashi to stand up to that kind of intense flavor; dilute veal stock seems about right.

Matsutake Gohan
Now this is brainless cooking: a very good dish with no work at all. Again, I’d love to try it with earthier mushrooms.

What you do is, you take 3 big servings of dry rice and wash well in cold water. Then you put the strained rice in the rice cooker and add the right amount of water according to the cooker. Let sit 30 minutes. Then add 2 Tb sake and 2 Tb soy. Sprinkle on 1 matsutake mushroom prepared exactly the same way as in the previous recipe, and about half a pad of deep-fried tofu cut in thin slices. Close the cooker and run it the normal way. When it’s done, gently toss the rice with the paddle to mix evenly.

I preferred this to the dobin mushi, but again, I think this isn’t my mushroom. With morels, or truffles of course, it would be absolutely spectacular. You’d want spring vegetables instead, like super-fresh peas off the vine, or maybe smallish chunks of asparagus, depending on what’s available. I think I’d use white wine instead of sake and reduce the soy by half; I might add a teaspoon of excellent balsamic vinegar instead or in addition.

So the matsutake part was very good, but a little disappointing.

Fig Dengaku
Dengaku is usually a chunk of tofu or eggplant that’s broiled with a sweet miso glaze. This is such a good dish, and so popular, that it’s evolved a wide range of variations. This one I saw in a blog somewhere as something eaten at a fancy kaiseki place in Kyoto, but I had no recipe. So I made it up.

You need: 3 very ripe figs, 1 cup water, 1 Tb soy sauce, 3 Tb mirin sweet cooking sake, 3+ Tb sugar, 2 generous Tb dark miso. Mix the water, soy, 2 Tb mirin, and 1 Tb sugar in a small saucepan that will fit the figs comfortably but snugly in one layer. Wash the figs gently and add to the saucepan. Let marinate for several hours or overnight, turning occasionally. Mix the remaining sugar and the miso in a smallish bowl, stirring constantly until fairly smooth. Add the remaining mirin and stir until smooth. Bring the saucepan to a strong simmer, reduce heat to very low, and cover the figs with a circle of parchment sitting directly on top; this will help them braise rather than steam. Continue simmering gently for 15 minutes or more, until the figs are quite soft but not breaking. Very, very gently remove the figs to individual serving plates (I used the other halves of the scallop shells). Add a spoonful of the hot braising liquid to the miso mix and stir until dissolved. Continue adding the braising liquid, a little at a time, until the mixture is hot, the sugar is dissolved, and the sauce is the texture of melted chocolate. Spoon sauce over the figs and serve immediately.
Braised Fig with Miso 2
I was very proud of this dish. One minor annoyance was that the scallop shells weren’t a great idea: they tip, and the figs have a lot of liquid, so serve in a proper little bowl. My only real complaint was that the fig skins were much firmer than I had expected. Next time I make it, I will blanch the figs first quickly and peel them, and I’ll serve with little spoons as well as chopsticks (western silverware would be better!). All in all, I’m proud of the fact that I started with a photo and a 10-word description from a non-expert blogger, and in one smooth shift executed a very successful dish. I’d do this again — in fact, I will do this again, and soon.


A successful dinner, and I thought a passable test of the whole matsutake issue for us. Conclusion: they’re fine, but I don’t get the hullabaloo. And with the world economy doing what it’s doing, those prices are ludicrous!

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fun With Scallops

So I’m in Nishiki market buying a bunch of stuff the other day. Nishiki is this amazing place where you can get pretty much anything that appears in remotely traditional Japanese food. It’s a whole bunch of little stalls, most just 6-10 feet wide; this egg place is literally something like a meter wide, and the nice lady has to go into the back to get stuff for you because she doesn’t have almost any display space.
Eggs at Nishiki 2
Nishiki market runs for several blocks, covered, blocked off from traffic — and now also from smoking, which is a definite plus around food!

I’d already gotten pretty much everything I needed and I was just looking for something extra, some neat thing that wouldn’t cost too much but would be fun. And I spotted, way at the west end of the market, a guy who does mostly shellfish. He’s got this big tray of ice, on which he’s got live oysters and the most beautiful live scallops I’ve ever seen. They’re $4.75 apiece, which isn’t much considering they’re huge.
Scallops at Nishiki
Hey, I can shell a scallop — they say it’s the easiest hardshell to do, so I can learn from good instructions. I’ll cut them, then broil in the shell with some pollack roe, because scallops usually don’t have decent roe of their own and I want the richness without mayonnaise and cheese and stuff. The nice man carefully chooses three good ones and packs them into a paper bag with a little plastic thing of ice, puts that in a plastic bag, and I head off home.

So about 45 minutes before I want to serve dinner, it’s time to get those suckers out. I’ve read that you don’t do it more than an hour in advance because they don’t stay fresh. So, out come the scallops and a very, very sharp paring knife. This photo shows both: that’s a 4.5-inch blade, so you can see how big the scallops are.
Since you almost never see scallops live in American markets, I’d never shelled one myself, but I knew what to do. Here’s the basics: You hold it right-side up, and since the mouth tends to gape you can just reach into the upper shell with a paring knife. You cut between the adductor muscle, which is the big part you eat, and the shell. This releases the shell, which you pull off, and then you scrape the bottom clean in the same way. You only eat the adductor muscle, which looks like what you think a scallop looks like: a white cylindrical blob. If there is red roe, you eat that too, but that’s not usual except in one or two Atlantic species. The rest you chuck.

You might think chucking that stuff is wasteful; after all, you’re chucking essentially 100% of the stuff you eat in a mussel, clam, or oyster. But this actually makes the scallop probably the safest bivalve to eat raw: the danger usually comes from the fact that you’re eating a filter, something that eats by sucking things (including nastiness) out of the water. But with a scallop, you only eat the adductor muscle holding the shells together, and you chuck the filter part. (Though in Europe and Japan they usually eat the whole thing.)

So, armed with this knowledge, I grabbed my beautiful scallop and my beautiful handmade knife. In goes the knife, and snap! The thing closes, hard. After a good bit of work, I extricate the knife. I’m not kidding: this thing was really gripping the knife! I try again, this time coming in from the side, where there’s a bit of a gap. I can get the knife a couple inches in, but to get farther the scallop needs to open, and it doesn’t want to. I don’t want to screw around here, because I don’t want to hack the flesh to bits, and besides that knife is frighteningly sharp, so if I slip badly I could literally lose a fingertip. Finally, working as carefully and quickly as I can, I manage to cut above the muscle enough that it starts to let go on one side, but it’s still fighting. Not wanting to kill myself with the knife by yanking or something, I shift to the opposite side, cut-scrape some more, and suddenly uuhhhh it lets go. Now scrape scrape scrape and it all goes in a little bowl for trimming later.

I’m thinking, okay, this is a mutant scallop, right? I mean, I have never had trouble like this with clams, mussels, lobsters, crabs, or whatever. Oysters I have only opened once, but there it’s just a bit of hard pressure and pop! So, on to the next scallop. It’s equally feisty. I’m expecting it, though, so I have a strategy, but it’s still a fight. Same with the final one. If that knife were blunt, I’d have shredded the meat just trying to open the damn thing, and god knows what I’d have done if the blade had been short.

Okay, so far so good. A little surprising, but at least they’re really fresh. Right?

Next I scrub the shells very well with soap, rinse thoroughly, and boil the hell out of them for ten minutes. This is because I’d like to use them as little dishes, you see. Once those shells have cooled and drained in a colander for a while, it’s time to trim the meat and get these puppies under the broiler. What with one thing and another (I had most of a meal to prepare at the same time), it’s been about 30 minutes since the shell fight.

I reach in to the bowl for one of my pals and scoop it out. Suddenly it sort of jump-pulses in my hand. It’s still alive and fighting! Now I’m getting a little freaked. Fresh, yes, but what they hell? I cut and trim as fast as I can, again with my very sharp knife, and it keeps pumping just when I least expect it. Finally I’ve cut enough that it stops moving — mostly: I can still feel it twitching just a bit as I finish up and dump it in a shell half. With some trepidation, I reach for the next... which starts throbbing. I’m expecting it, so I’m quicker, but it’s still weird. The last one, I’ve figured out what to cut first to stop it from jumping around, so it goes more smoothly, but it’s definitely alive.

Let me explain. When I say “jumping around,” imagine you’re holding a small frog or toad or maybe a big goldfish, gently but firmly, almost entirely enclosed in your fist. You thought it was dead, but now it decides it wants no part of whatever you’re up to and makes a break for it. Got it? Can you imagine it suddenly coming to life and starting to squirm? I know it’s just a muscle and a very simple nervous system, but it sure seemed like these scallops were trying to escape. I’m reminded of the heart transplant in the movie Airplane, which keeps bouncing up and down on the doctor’s desk.

Well, at least they’re fresh!

After all that excitement, the actual cooking part was nothing. I put one scallop each the three deepest shell halves and added two 1 cm slices of tarako, which is salted fresh pollack roe. Then a sprinkle of salt, a small dash of soy, and a squeeze of sudachi lime. I ran them under a sorta hot broiler about 3 minutes until the top was just opaque, the inside raw, the underside nearly so — I sure wasn’t concerned about freshness! Ta da, serve immediately.
Broiled Scallop with Tarako
Very good, I thought. Next time I’d add only one piece of tarako and something else, maybe a little sabayon or homemade mayonnaise or crème fraîche, to add a different, less salty richness, as the combination of richness and salt was a little too forceful against the subtly briny scallop. Cheese seems like overkill. Regardless, scallops this fresh are really fabulous. And at $4.75 per scallop for big honking diver-harvested things like this, I’d do it again in a minute.

I have since found that I did one thing wrong, and that there is a strong difference of opinion about another. The thing I did wrong: you always go in from the side, right by the hinge, not from the front, so the scallops can’t just clamp down on the knife like they did to me. The other thing: some people say you want a sharp knife like I used, but others say you want a butter knife and just scrape the muscle off the shell. That way you can’t shred the meat, you see, and can be pretty rough with the scallop. That system seems to be more popular with bay scallops, which are little, but it does get used with big sea scallops. Next time I’ll try both methods and see which works best for me.

Regardless, next time I’ll be prepared for a fight. Who’d have thought scallops would beat out crabs and lobsters for basic toughness and bad attitude?

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