Saturday, February 02, 2008

Dinner in Tokyo, Day 2: Gonpachi (Nishi Azabu)

On our second day in Tokyo I woke up at 5am. Looking out the window of my hotel room, I saw what looked like snow. I grabbed my coat and headed down to the 4th floor terrace, where a 7-11 with an ATM machine was supposed to be. The snow was light but steady. I ducked into the 7-11, past a big styrofoam sushi roll, as the guys behind the counter bowed slightly and said,"ohayo gozaimasu." I would spend the rest of the day in an office building looking forward to dinner at Gonpachi.

I'd read in my guide book that it was the inspiration for the restaurant scene in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, also that Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi had taken our President Bush to Gonpachi for dinner. I was sold on Kill Bill from the opening credits, and couldn't wait to check it out. By the time we left the office for our cab, the snow was mostly gone and a steady rain was falling.

While reviewers tend to describe Gonpachi as a Disney-style riff on rural or old Japan, it looked pretty cool in the rain. Designed to resemble a kura (which I've seen translated as warehouse and treasure house), the exterior featured rock walls and massive wooden doors. Entering through a deep doorway on the second floor, we had a view of the bamboo-covered and lantern-lit dining area on the first. A hostess made a stern face as I approached the railing with my camera, you can see some photos here. Our table was in a more formal dining area on the third floor, beyond a large garden. Open to the sky, the garden had been closed off with sheets of plastic. I wish I'd taken pictures of this now, at the time I worked to keep tarps out of my shots. Anyway, the food.

Some folks from the office ordered for us. Two large plates of sashimi, some yakitori, sushi nigiri, and then sushi rolls. Looking around the web, it seems that not every type of food is available on the first and second floors of the restaurant. The sashimi selections included a crisp, dense, chunk of golden fish eggs. I believe this is typically served at the new year. I don't always fare well with the more dense textural varieties of sushi, but I did okay with these. I was much more enthusiastic about what was described to me as a wedding dish of, "fish from very deep in the ocean with a big eye." My favorite of the nigiri were the young sardine fillets - bright silver and very tender.

A couple of nights later, we caught up with a friend of mine who had worked in our Tokyo office for a few years. He'd left to open up an English language preschool in Yokohama. He was not surprised that we'd been to Gonpachi, but described the food as "very international." It wasn't hard to see what he meant. Aside from the freshness of the ingredients, and some of the presentation aspects, the food was a lot like the sushi we eat in the bay area. Our Japanese colleagues were consistently surprised by how familiar we were with the language of their food, and in particular that we would make sushi at home. The most international of the foods we ate however, would have to be the foie gras nigiri.

Given the quality of the food and formality of the dining, I was surprised to learn that prices here are --by Tokyo standards-- reasonable. This is an important distinction to make in a town where a hotel buffet breakfast for three can set you back $80.00.

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