Category Archives: Japanese cooking

Restaurant Review: Picchu, Sapporo, Japan
The Meaning Of Restraint

I am back from my Japan trip, and it was a trip, to say the least. I’ll leave out the gory details but J ended up with a badly twisted ankle on the second day of our vacation; I decided to sprain my foot a few days after. Toss in a visit with the police (did not involve me personally but I had to play interpreter at 5:00 AM) and an earthquake which scared the living daylights out of me (I was in my high rise hotel room) and you’ve pretty much figured out that this wasn’t exactly the trip of a lifetime. However, a wacky Japan experience is better than no Japan experience, so I’ll spend the next couple of posts relaying the highlights of our trip.

One our very first day in Sapporo, we strolled around Nijo Market, famous for their bounty of locally caught seafood. We gawked over some of the biggest crabs I’d ever seen, piles of whole salmon and an array of a conch-like shellfish stuck to sides of large tanks. Almost all of the shops had lots of other local specialties like dried squid with squid ink, crab miso and even canned seal (please do not write me emails about this- I am simply making an observation!). One of the fish mongers offered to crack open a live uni (sea urchin) for us to eat and I was giddy since I’d always seen this on TV but had never tasted fresh-from-the-shell uni before. O M G- it was fresh, slightly briny and totally rich and J loved it as much as I did.

As we were walking around, J spied a teeny tiny restaurant with a sign that read “Picchu.” We peered inside to see that, at 2:00 PM, it was closed but gathered from the display of good olive oils and balsamic vinegars on the counter that it was an Italian restaurant. There was something so compelling about the bar-only restaurant that, even though it was our first day in Japan, we tossed our plans to eat sushi aside and vowed to come back for dinner.

On the way back to the hotel I picked up a few interesting food items to bring back to my friends. Sapporo is known for their food, particularly seafood, dairy, corn, ramen and potatoes. Each little shop carried the most unusual snacks showcasing these famous foods and I couldn’t resist. I bought four different flavors of caramels- corn, milk, potato and shio-ramen and decided that the corn and milk work, the other two definitely do not.

We returned to Picchu at around 7:00 PM and found the 10-seater bar half full. Since the space was so small, it was quite warm but once we opened an additional window it was quite comfortable. There was one lone chef- I’d say mid-30’s- working behind the bar in plain sight of all the customers. One very capable and polite waiter was the only other employee so he doubled as a dish washer as well between orders. We spied the specials written on a chalk board but since my Japanese reading ability is mediocre at best, we simply asked the chef to give us a tasting menu of what he recommended that highlighted the local ingredients. J went over the extremely reasonably-priced wine list and selected a bottle of Prosecco to start, then a half bottle of a red from Montepulciano.

The chef worked very steadily but calmly, and in no time we were both handed a plate with a small fish that the chef described as a tiny salmon. It was in a light broth and slightly grilled, very tender and extremely delicious. Topped with a thin slice of marinated konbu (seaweed) and a dollop of caper relish, it was the perfect compliment to our sparking wine. J and I knew at that point we were in for a treat.

The next course was a piece of homemade crab sausage made almost entirely of pure crabmeat. It, too, was lightly grilled and placed in a reduction so tasty that I almost picked up the bowl and drank every last drop. It was just so pure and beautiful in it’s simplicity and we both knew the chef was there to showcase the ingredient, which is did better than anyone I’d seen do in a long time.

I was very happy when a plate of spaghetti was the next course, since I’d been hoping for some pasta. The noodles were tossed with some good olive oil, salt & pepper and was peppered with chunks of local conch and edamame. The slight crunch of the conch came through and was mellowed by the sweet soy beans.

What came next was another dish I’d seen here and there but never eaten- uni risotto. You can only imagine how good his version, using the best local uni, tasted and I wanted to make sure to savor every last bite. This was a “wow” dish, and once again it was simple, beautiful and not overly rich.

The first of two main courses was a braised lamb, wrapped in caul fat and perched on a bed of dark green mashed local potatoes. Tender doesn’t even describe the softness of this meat that still somehow retained its meatiness. The basil-infused mashed potatoes were so fresh with herb flavor that I only wished I had more. I know, I’m gushing at this point but every single bite of every single plate to this point was so profound that we just sat there and ate in silence. I can still taste the basil in those potatoes they were so prominent yet completely melted with the flavor of the lamb.

Think it doesn’t get any better? Feast your eyes on this plate of local wagyu beef sitting in a garlic and potato puree and topped with watercress. Yes, it was as good as it looks if not even better and we both agreed that this was the absolute best thing of a fantastic meal. It was juicy and tender and everything I’d hoped real wagyu beef would taste like.

At this point one word kept popping into my head that explained clearly what this chef was all about- he was an expert in restraint. Nothing was over-sauced, over-garnished, over-thought or over-produced. It wasn’t even over-plated……..the places in which he held back made each dish perfect. Talk about an exact opposite experience of the one I had at Tojo’s in Vancouver. This chef was quiet in his perfection but modestly so- he wasn’t standoffish and answered questions we had but focused on the food and let it speak for itself. I mean, isn’t this what every food loving person in the world HOPES and dreams they will experience? The fact that we stumbled upon this nondescript place that ended up being one of the best meals we’d ever eaten made it even better. I mean, who would have known that such a small restaurant in the back alley of a fish market would be the location of what was most definitely one of the more profound dining experiences of my life eating Italian food in Sapporo?? Mind boggling, isn’t it? When I asked the chef if he’d been to Italy, he answered “No….but hopefully one day I will get the chance.” I swear it made me want to run to the local travel agent and buy the guy a ticket- I mean, if he is THIS good already could you image the insanity he would create after his maiden voyage to the country to which he pays such wonderful tribute to through his cooking?

The cost of this near-perfect, six course meal? A mere 5000 yen each for food. That’s just under $50 each. It’s almost a crime to eat all of the above and pay just that, don’t you think?

Even though a bunch of weird things happened on this trip, our experience at Picchu made the entire trip worthwhile. There isn’t a shred of this restaurant on Google or anywhere online that I could find, and I don’t have the business card on me but once J gets back from his tour I’ll post the address.

What To Eat Before Thanksgiving + 2 Year Blog Anniversary!!

First of all, I completely missed my two year blog anniversary of Tuna Toast which was November 11th! I can’t believe it’s been that long since I posted my first attempt at French macarons in teeny tiny font (what was I thinking?). And although my photography skills still leave a lot to be desired (as you’ll see in this post!!) I just want to thank all of the readers for sticking around and reading my rants on various topics. It’s still something I love to do and I hope there’s at least another two years left in Tuna Toast.

So one could argue that this week is the biggest eating week of the year. Thanksgiving is a time for turkey, mashed potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, roasted veggies, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie……….yikes, yeah, that’s a lot of grub. Since J and I know we’re going to get our eats on this Thursday (and probably Friday, Saturday and Sunday cos nothin’ is better than turkey leftovers!) we want to prep for the feast by keeping things light until then.

My friend N is currently a bachelor since his fiancee is in Japan taking care of her parents. He’ll join her next week, but in the meantime I thought he was probably living on Cup Ramen so we invited him over for some Japanese food last night. I love making Japanese meals with small amounts of many different things- it’s a great way to eat since it keeps your mouth busy with different flavors. It’s also quite healthy since everything is light but you never miss anything since there’s such a variety of items. It’s also nice to share a Japanese meal with a Japanese friend since maybe it reminds them of their “ofukuro no aji” or “the flavor of my mother.” Or maybe it’s flava, ha!

We had:

- Hamachi (yellow tail) and kohada (gizzard shad) sashimi

-Beef rolled with carrots, green beans and gobo (burdock root) in a sweet soy sauce

-Miso soup with asari (clams) and tamanegi (onions)

-Hiyayakko (cold silken tofu) with a sesame/soy sauce/green onion mixture

-Mizuna and daikon (white radish) salad with bonito flakes, nori (dried seaweed) and Japanese dressing

-White rice with multigrain mix

-Mushrooms steamed in a foil pack with sake, lemon, butter and soy sauce

Cooking like this also gives me a chance to use the many Japanese plates and bowls we got for our wedding almost six years ago, which is fun.

Tonight we’ll be eating Japanese food too, and then it’s two more days til the feast! Can’t wait!

Japanese Cooking for Health and Fitness

One of the first cookbooks I ever received was from my mom’s friend, Lei-san. It is called Japanese Cooking for Health and Fitness and, according to the note in the book, I got it on Christmas of ’84……..23 years ago……..YOWZA. I can’t believe I’m even old enough to own something that long (!) much less something that I vividly remember using on a regular basis.

Despite the title, the book isn’t really a diet book at all. It’s simply a well formed collection of recipes that are healthy……but most of the dishes in the book are things that the average Japanese person eats very often so it passes on the message that Japanese cuisine, in general, is healthy. The book is divided into meat, vegetable, tofu/egg and rice/noodle dishes and each recipe is very clear, concise and always successful it its subtle seasoning. I’ve never had a dish from the book that I didn’t like.

So my sister C and I would use this book often on the once-a-week nights that we were in charge of cooking dinner. Our absolutely favorite dish to make was Vegetables Rolled in Beef. It was one of those dishes that looked very impressive but was actually easy to make, and combined with rice and a salad, would make a complete meal.

While I was flipping through the book the other day, it occurred to me that I hadn’t made that dish in years…..decades, perhaps (eek). And I knew for certain that I’d never made it for my dear J, who is one of the biggest non-Japanese fans of Japanese food I know. A quick trip to Mistuwa was all I needed to get the few ingredients that I didn’t already have- the thinly sliced beef sold for sukiyaki or shabu shabu, fresh gobo (burdock root) and some carrots. I was ready to revisit one of the first dishes I ever mastered!

First you clean the gobo- the skin is easy to remove by scraping if off gently with the back of a spoon- then slice into six inch lengths and keep them in cold water with a touch of vinegar so they won’t turn brown. Slice the carrots in the same size, then blanch both in a mixture of water, sugar and soy sauce. Take some green beans and blanch them in hot water, then put in an ice bath to cool. Set it all aside.

After I had my vegetable mise en place, I just carefully pulled out each paper thin slice of beef, dusted it with a bit of potato starch, then rolled two each of the gobo, carrot and green beans up to form a cylinder. After securing the end with a toothpick, I repeated until all of the beef was used. I love the thinness of the beef, and even though it’s nicely marbled with fat, there is so little meat that you’re barely getting a quarter of a pound of beef in the ENTIRE dish. Amazing, no? Talk about cooking for health and fitness;).

The rolls get browned on each side in a pan and then doused with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, mirin and sake and left to stew just a bit until the sauce reduces and gets slightly thickened. Cut each roll in half to reveal the pretty veggies inside, and you’re done!

I had seen these enormous shimeji mushrooms at the store, so I just pulled each apart to make smaller pieces and put them in a foil packet with a bit of butter, soy sauce, sake and a couple of thin slices of lemon. After about 15 minutes in the oven, they were piping hot and ready to be cut open! Cold tofu topped with a mixture of ground sesame seeds, soy sauce, green onions and grated ginger was another addition, as well as some brown rice mixed with multigrain seeds and some spicy pickled cucumbers.

We poured ourselves some ice cold sake and enjoyed the Japanese supper. It really brought back a lot of memories for me, and J wondered why I hadn’t made it for him before. We both really loved the combination of the tasty beef, slightly al dente vegetables and sweet sauce. I’ll make sure to put this dish back into our dinner rotation from now on.

I was shocked to see that you can still purchase this book at Amazon, so check it out if you’re interested in Japanese cooking. It’s a great place to start!