Although today was mostly a cozy, rainy, stay-inside day, we ventured out for a birthday lunch for Don (it was still his birthday in his Chapel Hill time zone until 1:00 this afternoon, and the CA time zone until 4:00 this afternoon, after all). We went to Comrade, a place down the street from us that looks like it’s pretty vegetarian friendly – they prominently feature vegetable dishes outside and their requisite “cute mascots” are vegetables (restaurants in Japan all feature not just a menu outside the restaurant, but either photographs of their dishes, or often even plastic models of the food in a display case. I’ve learned that the plastic models are almost always larger-than-life, by the way – not to scale! And everything in Japan – restaurants, shops, temples, etc. – all have “kawaii” little mascots associated with them.)
Surprise – all the dishes on the special lunch menu have meat or fish in them.
Luckily, this place features so many vegetables because they seem to love them, and the chef very nicely agreed to create a special dish just for me.
Comrade has a tiny but bright interior – three small tables in the front, a few more in the back – the restaurant seats no more than 20 at a time, it seems – as well as a little children’s play area in the back. One of the walls in the front room is donned with photos of the twelve farmers with whom they do business, and little blurbs about them.
The restaurant has been approved by the “Vegetable Sommelier” of Japan. Apparently, it is very picky about vegetables – they only work with twelve farmers they know well, all from around the Tokyo area, and they get vegetables picked that morning and they use them the same day. (They’re also selective about where they source their meat and fish, but I was less interested in that. If you’re interested, I’ll find out from Don.) In post-tsunami Japan, this is actually a big deal. There is a lot of fear that vegetables will be contaminated, and many people are trying to avoid vegetables that come from near the Fukoshima region after the troubles with the nuclear power plant.
It’s also a big deal because Japan is very focused on eating seasonally – something that seems to be ingrained in the culture of the Japanese for centuries, rather than say, as a recent foodie-trend, as we see in the US. In Japan, one eats cold noodle soup in the summer and hot noodles in the winter. Vegetables are eaten when they are in season (and there does not seem to be the scientifically generated extended seasons we see in the US. For instance, Don describes the strawberry season in Japan as lasting for just a few weeks, and while we loved being able to get fresh strawberries from Farmer’s every week this summer, there seems to be something sweet in the anticipation of a fruit’s season and the brevity of that season that makes food just a little more special than it is in the US). Eating – and even dressing and behaving – according to the seasons seems very important in Japanese culture.
[SIDENOTE: A related little tidbit I love: During the ukiyo-e woodblock print period (“pictures of the pleasure-seeking ‘floating-world,'” according to my trusty guidebook), pictures of ghosts and goblins became a very popular genre in the summers, because being scared was thought to give a chill and thus have a cooling effect on people.]
Don had a seafood salad piled atop a plate of spaghetti noodles with a thin, Japanese-style pasta sauce that arrived in a long boat shaped bowl. He loved it, and said there was a piece of zucchini in it that was incredible (he is not a big zucchini guy). He also pointed out that his dish contained more individual vegetables than we probably make at home in an entire year.
The personalized creation the chef constructed for me was unbelievable: it was a mound of vegetables, including carrots, daikon, sprouts, pumpkin, onions, lettuce, radicchio, watercress, okra, peppers and more I can’t even name, also piled on top a heaping plate of spaghetti with a thin, Japanese-style tomato-based sauce. It was topped with a piece of fried leaf of I’m not sure what – possibly kale but it was so light tasting I’m not positive – that looked barely fried at all but was sharp and crispy (see big green leaf on top of the photos.)
This might be our new favorite restaurant in Kichijoji, and it is little more than a block from our home.
The autumn menu also features vegetable themed desserts – butternut squash custard; carrot cheesecake; tomato-chocolate cake (it looked like a layer of tomato cake on top of a layer of chocolate cake, not tomatoes and chocolate all mixed together); spinach and white chocolate cake; avocado and soft cheese cake; soba-flour jindaiji roll cake (translates as ancient temple rollcake – we’re not sure what to make of that one, and more. We have yet to try the desserts, but I’m sure we will eventually.
Musashino, Kichjoji, Honcho 1-10-14 (It’s on Kichijoji Dori – from the train station, walk north for about 500 meters – the restaurant will be on your right in the middle of the block, just after the entrance to the Renjoji temple. If you get to the Musashino Hachimangu Shrine, you’ve gone too far. There is also an “access” page with a map on their website)
Toilet update: Since I seem to be obsessed with the advanced toilet technology in Japan, I’m sharing this story too:
Today is the coldest it’s been since we arrived in Japan – Rainy and temperatures down in the high 60s! (Hey, it’s been lovely 70s for the last two weeks, and I get cold freakishly easily). I was thrilled to discover that Comrade has heated toilet seats – something I’d heard about, but hadn’t experienced yet. They’re delightful.