Kikanbo

Lunch in Saturday was at an old favourite of mine in Kanda, a rather unfashionable business district in central Tokyo. Karashibi Kikanbo is legend of the Tokyo ramen scene offering up bubbling vats of liptingling noodles. The name refers to a giant mace wielded by ogres. In line you pick your desired level of heat and tingle. Once you get inside you take a seat at the counter and receive your bowl to an oppressive thrum of drums and chanting, the chef's greetings barely audible over the terrible dread march.

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It's a culinary Temple of Doom, "karimaaaa, karimaaaaa" croaks the chef gripping a sopping wet hunk of charsiu to be draped across the top of the noodles along with some sautéed beansprouts. It is without a doubt the best pork garnish I've ever come across in Japan. It breaks apart in flakes like a perfect fried fish, and alone is worth the entire bowl. Fortunately the rest of the ensemble is a delight, with a tingling Szechuan piquant that leaves your inner mouth hypersensitive so that when you sip on your ice water if feels like you've swilled a mouthful of goldschlager and the water is draining into your cheeks from a thousand cuts.  

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Pizza Slice

Anything you can do I can do better. Or at least extremely well. One late night in Brooklyn with my brother we stumbled upon Best Pizza, where we very badly burnt the rooves of our mouths on mindbending caramelised onion slices. The proprietor Frank Pinello now fronts Munchies' superb Pizza Show. Watch enough episodes and you'll be hankering for a cheesy piece. 

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Shibuya's Pizza Slice looks great, with two shelves of pies and the greasy paper plates that make you feel like you're stopping off for a New York streetside slice at Joe's or John's. The crust is firm and airy, the toppings well balanced. After a week of pickled daikon and fishcakes, a Tokyo slice is all you need. 

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Nakameguro pt.1

I'm back in Japan after a holiday here earlier in the year with the Mouse in tow. At the time I had planned a great photo essay to show off the meals we enjoyed in Tokyo, through Nagano for some skiing, and Kyoto. Unfortunately this never materialised and the trip was somewhat dampened by a torn ACL on the moguls in Nozawa Onsen, a traditional Japanese ski resort. But this a story for another time.

I'm here for 5 weeks on a work secondment, and much poorer since David Chang's Lucky Peach website has shut down. It was an excellent curated resource for Tokyo restaurants and bars. I owe some of my all time favourite meals to the site and it will be sorely missed.

Now, guideless, and having failed to find any compelling Tokyo food blogs barring the odd instagram (Ivanramen, ramenadventures), I'm groping blindly at what's out there.

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I've started near to my apartment in Nakameguro, an enclave of artisanal brew coffee stores and the home of Tokyobike. Ogling the £700 cycles at Tokyobike the staff very kindly gave me a map of the area with some of their favourite spots.

Most of the people I knew here have moved on, so staring down the barrel of a solo Friday night I went for a double header of evening meals. London was a constant battle to say no to events and invitations to limit alcohol consumption and maximise sleep. No such trouble in Tokyo. There is something particularly wretched about feeling alone in a big city which hiterto I've never really experienced. It feels like such a waste of a brilliant city, to be alone and not sharing it, even for just one night.  I'll bet that there's no country on earth where there is so much mutual enmity between expats. Tokyo's foreign settlers are constantly railing against their foreign cousins and belittling each other. The bankers hate the JET language teachers who hate the comic book nerds who hate the tourists who hate each other. The Reddit page for Japan consists almost entirely of firmly entrenched expat users complaining about tourists, ranting about other foreigners and how they embarrass the international community,  and abusing midwesterners who ask how to get a Japanese girlfriend. I don't claim any great insight into where this comes mutual loathing from. Perhaps back home expats are fêted for their willingness to endure the quirkiness of the country and don't want to lose their sense of uniqueness when they come back out east. Alternatively they're mocked for being out here and assumed to have a penchant for Japanese girls or nerd culture, and so are heavy handed with anyone who perpetuates this stereotype. The international community in Tokyo is small, and very visible in such a seemingly homogenous society. Maybe this adds to the effect.

There doesn't seem to be much of an infrastructure that facilitates expat networking here besides from the Tokyo American Club, a huge fortress-like structure near Roppingi with 8 restaurants, a pool, tennis courts, and a calendar of Burns nights and Halloween parties. All this comes at an eye watering price (upfront membership fee of $15,000 and $220 per month thereafter) so precludes most young people. This city and the great people scattered around its neighbourhoods deserve better.

I'm conflicted on the mutual hatred of expats point. It's absurd and wholly irrational that we want to have a city of however so many millions of people to ourselves, and that we resent the presence of other foreigners in bars and restaurants. In February the Mouse and I went for udon and tsukemen one night. The udon was excellent, with a wholesome broth, slightly salted, that laps at the walls of your mouth. More than half the customers inside were certainly tourists. This seemed to have had no discernible effect on the the quality of the food of course but it detracts from the overall experience - less special. Next up was the inimitable Fuunji, a near religious noodle experience. All the other customers lined up against to wall to wait for a seat at the counter were Japanese. It was just so much better. So be it.

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Friday night started off at Red Book, a bayou bordello themed curry spot. Well worn red velvet bar seats give the place a swampy sleaze. After consulting with the chef behind the counter I plumped for a thali-type selection of goodies. Raita, biryani, chicken curry and extras piled on a metal platter.  It was good, but now I'm wondering if the meals in February felt so special because of the company.  I was a de facto guide for the Mouse and loved seeing her face light up when we walked through dark neon-stained alleyways to find a well researched dive. 

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Slightly deflated next up was Buzjenbo on the northern edge of Nakameguro. White tiled and filled with catrearing manuals it's like walking into the kitchen of a modern day Miss Haversham, though one with a far more active social life. The Buzjenbo udon consists of fish cakes, deep fried tofu, and seaweed piled up in a generous bowl.

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The thick wheat noodles lie suspended in a semi-transparent broth, barely thicker than water but with a savoury hit to fill your cheeks. When you slurp up the noodles the ends writhe about violently, like you're devouring some dreadful space worm as a last resort. I've previously had little patience for udon, often finding it a poor vessel for the satisfying girthy noodles. Buzjenbo defied my expectations of dignified mediocrity. Superb.

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Honest Burger

Honest burger might be London's most reliable. The house burger is packed with enough salt to choke a flamingo and a balanced ensemble of cheese, bacon and chutney. You'll be gasping for water in the cab home, wishing you'd opted for an uber lux.  Honest Burger provides a lesson in successful expansion. It's Mongol-like spread is comparable to Franco Manca's. I remember queueing with a tinder date to get in to one of Franco Manca's first sites in Tottenham Court Road, loudly telling her that the manager had told me it would be a 2 hour wait. Half the line immediately left. Suckers.

 

It once set the standard in sourdough pizza, but a recent visit to the Gloucester Road branch left me flabbergasted. A disaster of seared dough and a blob-like ham/mushroom fusion. Like Marcus Aurelius, grabby expansion has exposed cracks in the Franco Manca empire. The administrators dispatched to distant boroughs have not administered with the clear-eyed majesty of their brethren in the Capital. The impoverished flatbreads that greet eager converts are limply splattered with soupy toppings with all the appeal of a half digested Quiche Lorraine making its way through a dysentry-addled urchin. All the while barbarians are amassing at the gates of Rome, barbarians called Voodoo Ray, Pizza Pilgrim, and Homeslice.

 

Honest Burger has maintained a decent standard. A special Rib Man burger named for the eponymous BBQ legend on brick line packed a pleasing piquant. Rosemary chips could dehydrate the Pacific, but were irresistible. Honest Burger is foolproof. 

KILN

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KILN smells wonderful. Aromas come wafting across the counter, waves of kaffir lime and lemongrass one time, dense ginger and turmeric the next.

But they never seemed to make it onto my plate.

My mother managed to fiercely guard 3 seats at the counter by flirting with the Portuguese waiter, as slick-haired henrys puffed their cheeks and blew hot air, sent packing.

We kicked off with a heroically bad langoustine. A cold, meatless, exoskeleton lamely draped in leaves. 

Then came cubed lamb bits with cumin and what must have been mustard gas. 

I fancy myself relatively tolerant of heat. I spent 4 days rushing deliriously between Seoul's hottest stews and hotpots. I was a one-time habanero hot wing-eating record-holder. But these lamb skewers were hot as a punch in the tongue from the human torch.

Roast pork loin with a thinking man's sweet chilli sauce, and some generic pan-fried veg failed to recreate the excitement of the skewers. 

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Our final two courses trumped all others. Laotian Pollock with chilli was a satisfying bowl of dry flakes powdered and seasoned. This was followed with a Burmese wild ginger short rib curry, rich and dense,  and speckled with floating strips of stringy meat. A bath of curried bleach with the half-dissolved remains of a cow bobbing around in it.

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El Cartel

*SPECIAL EDINBURGH EDITION*

 

A night at Spank! is the ultimate Edinburgh Fringe experience. Spank! takes place in a beery basement in the Cowgate. It features 6 or 7 comedy acts and lasts from midnight until 3 am. 

The most infamous part of Spank! is undoubtedly the "naked promo", whereby any audience member can promote his or her own show to the rest of audience (a good 200 people) on the condition that they do so naked. Invariably it's some hairy-arsed beta male telling you that his Game of Thrones improv really is worth the £6. The whole thing can be rather depressing.

Last year I performed the naked promo myself, promoting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed between Iran and a suite of other powers with a mangina.

However, by far the best story I've heard was from a friend who went along early this August. One particularly lairy audience member shouted at the naked promoter "Your cock looks like a snail!". Within seconds the audience were chanting "SNAIL!" again and again, presumably until the poor man jumped into a canal. 

I had to get back to Spank! again this year.

After doing battle with the heaving crowds on the Royal Mile to get my tickets, I needed a frozen margarita.

El Cartel has 4 slush puppy machines going at any one time. The gorgeous, tooth-achingly sweet margaritas will really mellow you out. 

Here's a good acid test when eating Mexican: if a "taco" is a giant crisp, like the overgrown village idiot of a Dorito hamlet, then don't bother.

Fortunately El Cartel seems to take a lot of pride in its food. 

The guacamole was brilliantly executed, garnished with pomegranate and feta, and arrived within 45 seconds flat of ordering. 

The main feature are the tacos. Ox tongue with salsa verde and radish is a rare treat, with the consistency of a rolled-up Lorne sausage. It turns out ox have very large tongues. They also have a pleasing dry and crisp quality. Embarking on one of these generously-sized tacos is like frenching Gene Simmons after a dry weetabix.

Steak tacos with dried tomato, duck with a faintly Chinese honeyed chipotle, and cod are all excellent too. 

I'm no chicken wing zealot. There is a place in this world for baked wings. But why bother? They will never match the luxurious bite of the humble fried wing. El Cartel's come in a decent chilli sauce.

The Frijoles, a drunken mess of cheese, beans and other beans is undeniably tasty, although it will leave a black hole of impossibly dense anti-matter in your stomach. 

On a sunny day with the doors at El Cartel open, you can sip on a frozen margarita, enjoy excellent tacos, and dream up all the devastating things you can shout at a nervous naked man at 2am. Bliss. 

 

 

Wings

*SPECIAL EDINBURGH EDITION*

It is amazing what I will endure to eat a few paper plates of hot wings. 

The basement of Wings on Fishmarket Close is a damp, unpleasant space. Its creators have filled the basement with vintage games consoles, posters, and memorabilia from Star Wars, and other Nerdom intellectual property. 

The whole place feels like an unwashed children's play area, where distressingly mucky kids have been drooling on the Fisher Price. Playing Street Fighter II on a Sega waiting for our wings, the state of the controllers was almost enough to rob me of my appetite. 

As you would probably expect for an Edinburgh Old Town basement built on plague pits and burnt witches, it is very very damp. Breathing in the ancient fungal spores in that basement that must take years off your live. 

All this, and I like it. It's good fun negotiating the vast menu. Some tips:

  • Stay away from the dry rubs -  these are often unceremoniously dumped on the top of the plate, leaving some wings caked in so much that it's like eating iron filings. 
  • The heat measures are wildly inconsistent - but this is part of the fun. One day the excellent Dance in the Blue Flame will offer a pleasing piquant sensation, and on another it they will melt your face.
  • Order extra blue cheese dip - wings are not served with blue cheese as a default. 
  • It's cheap as chips - order lots and experiment. 

After several trips I've narrowed my selection down to a couple of favourites. The aforementioned Dance in the Blue Flame (pictured above) is Wings' take on the award-winning Bleu Bayou wings at Abigail's in Waterloo, NY. Chef Marshal Grady was singled out as creating the world's best buffalo wing in feel-good wing-food documentary The Great Chicken Wing Hunt, by folding blue cheese dip into the Louisiana hot sauce.

Another favourite is the Shakakahhh named after the great white bat with great white guano in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (re-watched the other night - holds up well). It's a secret recipe, but seems to a tomato-based hot sauce, with a slight tang - irn-bru perhaps? 

Wings makes a compelling offering of lots of wings, cheap beer, and Mariokart at your table. You can see why I can't keep away.

 

Ting Thai Caravan

*SPECIAL EDINBURGH EDITION*

There is often a queue outside Ting Thai Caravan in the evenings. On this particular occasion comedian Mark Watson nervously explained to me that his companion was innocently enquiring about the expected wait time, rather than skipping the queue when she darted into the restaurant ahead of me.

After grunting in acknowledgement and allowing Mark Watson to calm down, I met my friend and we sat down for dinner.

I'm planning to start a new blog.

"But Nick? This blog has literally 4 posts on it? Why would you start another?"

"Well, sometimes a man has such a good idea that he simply has to fork out the extra USD$10 a month to set up another Squarespace page."

Ladies and gentleman, that idea is to establish a definitive guide to the UK's Chicken Wing scene. It will be called GiveMeChickenWingsorGiveMeDeath.com (or the closest available URL), and it is going to be huge. 

In that spirit I ordered Ting Thai's wing offering, the Bangkok spicy Peek Gai. 

The wings were soaked in lemongrass and Nam Pla, giving them that intensely savoury and quintessential South-East Asian flavour that says "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning".  The psychedelic effect of Lemongrass on the palate is not too dissimilar to reverb - tastes like a Saigon acid trip. 

The Pad Thai was a bad try, and by no means the best item on the menu. If you're going, have the pork and rice dishes.