Thursday, October 25, 2007
During my recent travels, I decided I wanted a special meal Japanese-style when in Tokyo. I wanted to try an upscale Izakaya. Based on reviews on websites such as Chowhounds, Travel & Leisure and TripAdvisor, I decided that Daidaiya was a desireable destination. Daidaya is hailed by many writers as a wondrous and modern Izakaya experience. Anya von Bremzen of Travel & Leisure states that Daidaiya is, "to a back-alley eating bar what Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao is to a community art center."
This seemed like a likely endorsement, so armed with a plethora of reviews that spoke of Daidaiya as an experience not to be missed, I took us there for something truly Japanese in the contemporary sense. Not just another sushi or udon bar.
Daidaiya in Shinjuku is in one of the common Tokyoite versions of a strip-mall. Tokyo being small and population dense, a strip mall in Tokyo runs veryically rather than horizontally. What looks from the outside like uber modern office buildings are often retail spaces. We took an elevator up many floors to the cavernous lobby of the restaurant. The friendly host showed us to a private booth created by hanging metal mesh curtains with banquette seating and a small table in the middle. It is a beautiful effect, but prevented people watching as the drinking Japanese salarymen and cuddling couples were all but hidden from view.
I think the main problem with the experience was being at a disadvantage linguistically. Tokyo is the first place I have visited where I did not speak, on at least some level of fluency. the language. Additionally, we were surprised to discover not as many people spoke English as we had expected. This might have been due in large part to the fact that we tend to steer clear of places intensely touristic. So, presented with a Japanese menu and a Japanese speaking waiter, we decided on the omakase menu, which was the only word I understood on the page. On to the food.
The first course was a lovely little soup, a clear broth with white dumplings floating in a small bowl. Upon tasting however, I would swear on my mother's homemade chicken broth that those dumplings were floating in nothing more than water. Pretty to look at and nearly entirely flavorless.
Next up were twin appetizer platters. Each platter contained the following: sponge cake, octopus salad (delicious), tiny whole fish grilled (pretty yummy), and what looked like a still live and completely raw squid.
When the waiter came to clear the plates my squid was hidden by a piece of spongecake. Poor fella! He deserved to be fried up calamari style in some neighborhood kitchen in Manhattan and served with a nice marinara.
The one course I thoroughly enjoyed was the tuna sashimi. Hard to ruin and perfect in it's simplicity.
Another tiny course I enjoyed was a very very small portion of asparagus on a rather large plate drenched in a miso based sauce. I could have eaten an entire platter of this, if I knew how I would have asked for more.
The most humorous course was the giant clam served in it's shell on a personal clay grill. The clam was raw and I assume was to be eaten slightly cooked by the little grill. But it was so huge the idea of eating it was just not plausible. My dining companion was slightly embarrassed that so much of his food was being sent back to the kitchen uneaten. He handled this by throwing the clam over the side of the booth where it landed on the lightbox hidden from view.
My one question about the meat course would be, what the hell? It looked like a small piece of excellent quaility beef sitting on a plate next to some dog poop. Despite my hunger, I was really unable to even sample the poop.
The one thing that got us through that meal was our innate ability to communicate our need for a steady stream alcohol. We ordered round after round of delicious cold sake. This was extraordinarily good sake, fresh and delicate but stood up nicely to the small amounts of food we managed to swallow. I am not sure how many bottles we drank, but at some point the waiter started laughing every time we ordered another round.
Despite the strange and not wonderful food, it was a truly enjoyable evening. We laughed til our sides ached and ended up bringing teriyaki mystery meat from a street vendor back to the hotel to assuage our hunger and stave off the inevitable hangover.