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!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Portland, OR | Day 5

June 27, 2014

The state of Oregon is renowned for its natural beauty and we were keen to get out and see it. The best we could manage given our circumstances and the weather was a half-day tour along the Columbia River, where we were rewarded with a couple of gorgeous waterfalls, lots of thick greenery, and a couple of bird sightings (see slideshow above).

Our guide Josh recommended eating at the Goose Hollow Inn and kindly dropped us off there for a late lunch. They're famous for their Rueben sandwiches, and even have a vegetarian Rachel alternative (US$8.85 ~ AU$9.45). Mushrooms, onion, tomato, sauerkraut, Rueben sauce and melted Swiss cheese completely over-ran the rye bread slices in a sloppy savoury avalanche. (It's a very different experience to the Rachel we once made at home.) I enjoyed it very much, though I struggled to get through the pickle, potato salad and carrot sticks on the side.

We did a little last wandering in the afternoon and began our evening at Ground Kontrol, a bar and classic games arcade where Michael had his pick of Street Fighter, Ninja Turtles and Terminator 2 pinball. I didn't have any personal nostalgia for these games, but I dabbled in a little Ms. Pacman and enjoyed the subtitled anime film projecting near the bar. They had a great menu of snacks like hot dogs and frito pie with a vegan option for 90% of their items. Portland is really just too cool.

We held off on the game-time snacks since we had a dinner reservation at Departure. This bar serves modern Asian food with rooftop views in a setting we weren't quite hip to, sleek and white with interminable chill grooves and very young, entirely professional staff. We observed in awe a table of improbably young and slender girls with fake tans and volumes of meticulously curled hair as they took selfies for an hour (and sat silently with their cocktails communing with their phones for a second hour).

This didn't detract too much from the fine food. Departure has separate vegan and gluten-free menus that each run to more than a dozen sharable plates. While we took stock of our options, I sipped a Green Hornet cocktail (US$10 ~ AU$10.70), a light sparkling mix with white rum, yuzu, coriander and a lime wedge.

After ordering, our dishes arrived quickly in no particular order. The chili tofu (US$12 ~ AU$12.80) had a great sweet-and-spicy braise, and had been stir-fried with hearts of palm, green onions, whole dried chillis and some candied walnuts that I made sure to clear from the bottom of the bowl. The Asian pear and apple salad (US$9 ~ AU$9.60) included more hearts of palm among the thin fruit slices plus candied tamarind, roasted macadamias and whole mint leaves.

The gingered mushrooms (US$13 ~ AU$13.90) were Michael's favourite, delicately layered over sweet and sour rhubarb with fresh watercress and ramps.

A dab of spicy miso really made the sweet potato tempura sushi rolls (US$8 ~ AU$8.60) - Michael claimed the wasabi while I swooped on the accompanying pickled ginger. The steamed buns (US$7 ~ AU$7.50) could barely wrap themselves around their char-flavoured tempeh slabs, and we ate most of the accompanying 'slaw and fresh herbs with our fingers.

The dessert menu was impressive and we couldn't agree on a dish to share. (We should've, because the portions were large and our available stomach space was small.) Michael championed the (non-vegan) dark chocolate wasabi bar with yuzu sorbet, yuzu jam and candied peanuts (pictured left, US$9 ~ AU$9.60), while I had to try the vegan Departure banana split (pictured right, US$9 ~ AU$9.60). It involved three enormous tempura banana fritters, miso butterscotch, a dark cherry compote, and a coconut-based peanut brittle icecream. I had to leave the last fritter, but you better believe I ate that icecream.

As we walked back to our Portland accommodation one last time, we were drawn to a crowd gathered on a street corner. They'd congregated around a busking band, with a joyous, athletic horn section that got much of the crowd dancing. It was the kind of spontaneous, welcoming street scene that I'll remember Portland for, maybe even longer than their magnificent veg*n food.