Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tokyo | Day 3

July 2, 2014

We were left to our own devices on Wednesday, with a recommendation from Matt that we flee the heat by catching the train up the hill to the Hakone Open Air Museum. It was surprisingly great - beautiful views, tranquil parkland, a natural hot spring foot-bath and dozens of brilliant outdoor sculptures to explore. The slideshow below captures the highlights - I really recommend making the trip up if you've got some spare time, especially if the Tokyo heat is getting to you.



The food options up the mountain were pretty limited - we loaded up on chips and mochi at the supermarket and snacked our way through the trip up, before pouncing on some inari on the way down. We were lured in to the little snack shop by the plastic model of inari on the table outside and were thrilled when the owner whipped up a freshly made box for us to take away. Brilliant.


Our aim on our return to Tokyo proper was a visit to the vegetarian ramen place T's Tan Tan (one of the recommendations on this wonderfully helpful post on The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry). It's buried deep in the sprawling Tokyo train station and we spent a good half an hour wandering about struggling to spot it. We actually had pretty decent directions, but it took a few stops at the train station maps for us to eventually pin it down.


It was well worth the effort - a fully vegan menu focussing heavily on ramen and ramen-related delights. I took the set menu option - your choice of ramen plus a small side bowl for between 1050円 and 1200円 (AU$11 - AU$12.60; pictured top left). I picked the shirunashi tantan for my noodle soup - it came with bean sprouts, pot-herb mustard, chilli oil, black vinegar, cashew nuts, peanuts, sesame oil and soy bean meat and was based around a complex and tasty broth (rather than the watery version that vego noodle soups can sometimes rely on). My small bowl accompaniment was the rich and creamy massaman curry, which had a few scattered veggies among the thick sauce and rice. I cooled myself down with an iced coffee, which was sweet and cold but otherwise not that memorable. Cindy went for a smaller meal - the original T's Tan Tan ramen (sesame, peanut, soybean meat and green pak choi in a noodle soup, 800円 ~ $8.40; pictured bottom right) and an accompanying cup of sweet apple lemonade tea (450円 ~ $4.70). She was just as impressed as I was. 

T's Tan Tan is definitely one to add to your Tokyo checklist - it's got a bit of a food court vibe about it, but the food is cheap, delicious and lacking any fish-related concerns. Ramen is such a Japanese classic and one that is challenging to track down in a properly vegetarian form, so we were thrilled to eat so well here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tokyo | Day 2

July 1, 2014


Tokyo has a beverage machine tucked around every corner and Michael happily made use of them, often hunting down a self-heating can of coffee first thing out the door.


We spent much of our second day with Michael's family, first strolling through Meiji Jingu. Michael and I had been there before, and in spite of our many fellow sightseers it was a pleasant, relaxing place to be - cooler in the shade of the trees and surrounded by positive prayer cards at the Shrine. Even so, we were thirsty and aching for a seat within a couple of hours.


Matt led us to Sakura-Tei for lunch, where we were seated around a hotplate to cook our own meals. We chugged down iced drinks to stave off the plate's radiant heat and ordered a bowl of okonomiyaki ingredients each. Matt helpfully ascertained with our waiter that there was one genuinely vegetarian option among them (1150円 ~ AU$12.10; there was something fishy going on last time we tried this) so we set to work gently folding together cabbage, onion, cheese and eggs into a nobbly batter and arranging it on the plate. I proudly pulled off a neat flip, though I made more of a mess of my fried egg and cheese topping. My 'yaki might've been a little overcooked but there was no faulting it once the brown sauce and mayonnaise were slathered on.


We sought out another uniquely Japanese experience for dinner that evening, gathering at an izakaya in Shinjuku, ordering our snacks and drinks directly from an ipad at the table. Honestly, the food at this one wasn't great so I won't bother naming the venue - the edamame were unruly and starchy, the avocado was brown, and Michael and I found ourselves pushing fish flakes off several dishes that had looked vego on the menu. (On the upside, I had a lovely yuzu-flavoured soft drink.) There are numerous other excellent izakaya around Tokyo, and it's well worth giving them a go.


We finished the evening timidly exploring Shinjuku Golden Gai, a cluster of tiny bars that usually only welcome friends-of-friends. Even without an in, we could feel the quiet intimacy of this neighbourhood in stark contrast to the huge intersections and looming cinema-screen adverts only a few minutes' walk away.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Tokyo | Day 1

June 30, 2014


We hit our first full day in Tokyo without having really done much in the way of planning. Luckily, Matt was on the case and had our day pretty well mapped out. We started with a wander around Nakemuguro, browsing through a few shops and wending our way towards Potager Marche, a vegetable focused deli. They sell fruit and veggies, pre-made veggie meals and snacks and have a lunch set for people who want to eat in.


The lunch set is 1290円 (AU$13.50) and involves a little cup of soup, a bread stick, fresh leafy salad, your choice of three sides and a freshly squeezed veggie juice. The sides were the most interesting - there were pickled veggies, a couple of different kinds of mock meat, a gratin and so on. Everything was fresh and tasty - it felt like a good healthy start to our Tokyo eating.


We followed up with a visit to their nearby sister establishment, Patisserie Potager, a sweets shop with an intriguing focus on vegetables - everything has a vegetable component, so there's pumpkin and corn-based treats, radish jelly and a whole range of other odd-sounding desserts. I had a white asparagus souffle (470 円 ~ $4.90), while Cindy went for the passionfruit and yellow capsicum jelly with yoghurt mousse (470 円 ~ $4.90). Both were excellent, although the capsicum in Cindy's got a bit lost under the other flavours while my souffle had distinct hints of asparagus that worked surprisingly well in a sweet context. It's a fun shop and one that would reward more exploration. Vegans might struggle though, my sense was that everything was heavy on the dairy.


We strolled around for a while, making our way up the Hikarie building for a view over Shibuya and surrounds and some impressive design exhibitions before trekking back out to track down a source of decent coffee.


Matt knew just the place - Omotesando Koffee, tucked away in the back streets and offering a tiny peaceful oasis in the midst of the city's buzz. The heat was hitting us pretty hard after our walking, so we all ordered variations on iced coffee: iced latte for me (530円 ~ $5.60), iced mocha for Cindy (660円 ~ $6.90) and an iced cappucino doppio (660円 ~ $6.90) for Matt. We were all sucked in by the amazing baked custard cubes as well (170円 ~ $1.80).


The plan for dinner was to meet up with the rest of my family in Shinjuku where they were staying, but delays in their transport from the airport meant we had time for dinner first. Like a magician, Matt remembered the existence of Ain Soph Journey, an all vegan restaurant, just as we were about to walk past.

This was another Japanese veg*n place that was stuck on Western food - Ain Soph offered risotto, tortillas, paella and other slightly uninspiring menu items. I naively expected that most places would be doing vegetarian versions of Japanese dishes, but that didn't seem to be the case.


We ordered a mix of dishes to share between the three of us: tofu Spanish omelet (800円 ~ $8.40), tortilla with dips (1200円 ~ $12.60), deep fried veggie meat (650円 ~ $6.80), salad of the day (1500円 ~ $15.80) and a veggie cutlet (650円 ~ $6.80). The two fried mock-meat dishes were the highlights, with the salad and dips passable but overpriced and the omelet a bit lacking in flavour. It's lovely (and rare) to be able to order freely in Japan, so Ain Soph's fully vegan menu is going to be a life saver for some, but the food itself probably won't blow anyone's mind.

After a quick catch up with the rest of the family at their hotel in Shinjuku, we collapsed back at Matt's house and recharged our batteries for day 2, wiped out from too much food and too much heat.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tokyo | Day 0

June 29, 2014


Our final holiday week was spent in Tokyo. It's been four years since our last visit, and Michael's brother Matt stills lives happily in the city. He met us at his local subway stop on Sunday evening and helpfully deposited us at Meu Nota for dinner while he headed off to a gig.

The staff at Meu Nota don't speak much English, but they do have a subtitled copy of their menu to share. In any case, every thing is vegetarian so we knew we couldn't go too wrong. It's not a deeply traditional set of options, with falafel bites and couscous salad available beside the miso soup and rice bowl of the day.


Michael shoveled his way through the Meu Nota 30 ingredient taco rice bowl (1000円 ~ AU$10.50), a salad with corn chips and spiced bean 'mince' - we think this is where most of the 30 ingredients were going.


I dug into a modest bowl of sauteed vegetables in a coconut, carrot and ginger sauce, served over brown rice (850円 ~ AU$8.90). It was comforting home-style food, exactly what our exhausted diner-weary bodies needed. We could barely string together any English let alone Japanese, but I hope we adequately conveyed our gratitude to the friendly Meu Nota staff.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

where's the beef? at the Melbourne Writers Festival


The 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival program was released yesterday, including an extensive selection of Food, Wine and Travel events. I'll be appearing on a panel entitled Thinking & Drinking: Australian Fine Dining alongside Andrea Frost, Ronnie Scott and Estelle Tang. This panel will be held at the Duke of Wellington (an accessible venue!) from 6:30pm on Monday August 25.

I'd love to see some friendly faces there - please come and say hi if you attend!