Friday, February 17, 2012

haute cusine

So I've always heard rumors of "hidden pubs" in downtown Tokyo. Little places that only those with connections can find. The idea is quite intriguing, but I don't usually go out on my own and if I do it's usually somewhere cheap. When I'm with my friends we usually end up in a chain-shop, or somewhere not too hard to find. But a friend asked me to go try a Japanese pub in Shibuya tonight, and so I thought "Well, you only live once." and on an impulse headed out to find it.

I don't want to be google searched (but if you can read Japanese or use your noggin you can figure it out) so I won't write the name of the place, but that's all I had, the name of the place. It was written with on an archaic character, and that set the tone of the place. Intentionally esoteric and difficult. Japanese style haute cuisine, if you will. So I google search a map with the name and it is close to the exit so I walk there, and there is nothing but the lifeless front of a windowless building, with no door. I think I must be in the wrong spot, so I walk up and down some more. Nothing. I stop by a shoe shop and ask the nice young lady for directions. She says that it is next door (based on the address) and I told her I already looked there. She says "I think the entrance is around back." so I wander some more, but the way around back is blocked by a high fence. I ask another fashion shop near the back for directions. They confirm it should be right there. By now I am getting suspicious, so I ask if they have ever heard of it. They say of course, everyone talks about it. But they won't give me more details, I almost feel like they are intentionally holding information back. I wander some more. There is a chain-pub man standing near the faceless building trying to scoop up customers for his chain. I break down and ask him. He glances around (I swear!) and then says, go in the building next to it, and then turn right, go in the small door. Very odd directions, but I take his advice. The building next to it is a dirty old building with small fashion shops. I walk to the back of the building and see a small thumb size sign that says the name of the shop with no arrow. Next to it on the right is a rickety path (it's on the second floor) leading to the other building, on the other side of the path there is a small brown door that is only about chest height. I fumble with it, trying to open it, it's heavy and I'm not sure if it is even unlocked, all that even labels the place is the small thumb size sign (above) that is old and worn.

The door slides open. Inside is a smooth rock step leading up into a small room, a Japanese Pub entrance. Beyond the entrance there is a small Pub counter and in the distance I can faintly make out stairs to the dinner tables. There is a door man. He looks at me smooth as ice, and just as cold, he says (in Japanese) "Do you have a reservation?" as soon as I have ducked into the entrance. I'm kind of caught off guard. And although the place had the initial feel of a cheap neighborhood pub, there was an undercurrent of sophisticated expensive elusiveness buzzing in the air. I was kind of surprised, so I just stammered out, "uhm.. uh.. no.. just 1 person, don't have any reservations at all." I could feel the unwelcome ice emanating from him. This place really seemed out of my league, part of me wanted to turn and run. But I had come this far, I decided to see where things would go. "In that case, I'm sorry." he said coldly. "We are quite busy tonight, and all our seats are all taken." I looked behind him, half of the counter was empty. I had gotten this brush off before, especially at places that don't like to serve foreign customers. In this case though, it might have been more just the exclusiveness of the establishment. Also, I glanced around, and all the other customers seemed to be in suits and nice outfits, I was wearing a casual sweater. Maybe I was under-dressed, but it's not like I could change right there in the entrance. "OK, I'll wait, how long will the wait be?" He seemed surprised, his eye kind of flinched. "The wait will be over 3 hours, sir." I nodded, "OK, I'll wait." This time his reaction was clear, he looked at me like I wasn't getting the hint he was clearly trying to give me. He switched to thick accented English "Waito, 3 ha-our-s, OK?" I nodded and confirmed. He wasnt getting rid of me that easy. He called over his manager, who gave me the story about being busy and having a long wait and a seat not being open until well after 9:00. (It was about 6:00 when I entered the shop.) I said I was fine, and I could wait, or I could just make a reservation and come back again that evening when it was free. He hesitated, which logically didn't make sense since the only claimed problem was the lack of reservation. I said, "I just heard about this place from a friend, so I wanted to come try it for myself and see what it's like. Or is it like 'get lost if you don't have a reservation?' or something?" trying to call his bluff. It worked. He made a decision. He said, "The next reservation for the far right counter seat isn't for another 40 minutes, so if you want to sit down and try something, please come this way." I was in!

I was nervous from all the haggling just to get a seat, and so I accidentally didn't take my shoes off fast enough, looked like an idiot foreigner but sat down and tried to work on the elaborately printed hand written menu. The manager pointed out one of the waiters, and said, "He speaks good English, talk with him." even though we had been speaking in Japanese until that point. I didn't want to ruin the hospitality, so I nervously tried to order in English, but the guy wasn't ready for it, so I switched to a English-Japanese mix. He asked what are you drinking, so I stammered out "uhm... do you have plum sake?" and he seemed to scoff at my choice. I decided it would be better to get one of the more fancy label sakes, even though I know nothing about sake. I changed my order to one I had tried before, and ordered one dish from the menu. It was flame seared raw fish slices. They gave a complimentary salad. The food was most excellent, and the service flawless. I even thought I saw my friend's husband across the counter, but the place seemed kind of reserved like a chapel so I didn't call out to him. I ate my food, made a little small talk with the designated waiter. And then, partly because I hadnt brought enough money for that pricy place and also because they said they had a reservation for that seat (though not sure it was true) I quickly asked for the bill. The staff member shook my hand and, in English, asked me to come back. For a place seemingly so hostile to outsiders he was quite insistent on speaking English.

The food was quite delicious, and the experience was exciting and new. Life in Tokyo land.
All original content CC 2002-2012 BY NC SA - first design from dilarangmelarang altered by neonvirus and thunderbunny.