Browsing articles from "March, 2013"
Mar 4, 2013

The Beer Hunter

Asahi Silkscreen

Design & silkscreen printing: Louise Rouse, Shane Busato and Kohji Shiiki

 Most who live here have a “go to” brew; the one they reach for automatically at the conbini or dig from the ice of a summer cooler. But is the choice based on taste—or is it just prejudice? With St. Paddy’s Day around the corner, we put the Japanese beer blarney to the test.

Asahi Super Dry is often cited as the best-selling beer in Japan. But does the “silver bullet” deserve its market share? Or is Suntory Premium Malt’s—with its bizarre apostrophe—better? We decided to separate the barley from the chaff with a blind taste-test.

To narrow the field—and avoid wanton drunkenness—we used the five top-selling beers (conveniently covering each of the big four brewers: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory) plus a curveball at number six.

The contestants (prices from Kakuyasu, the discount booze broker):

1 Asahi Super Dry (¥195)
2 Kirin Ichiban Shibori (¥195)
3 Sapporo’s Yebisu (¥218)
4 Suntory Premium Malt’s (¥225)
5 Kirin Lager (¥195)
6 Suntory Rich Malt (¥114)

Though often mistaken for a happoshu, Suntory Rich Malt is an even lower class of the much-maligned “near-beers” littering store shelves across the country [for more on happoshu, see p05]. The low malt content means brewers pay less tax—and can therefore charge as little as half the price of a normal beer. We were keen to see if it’s really as bad as they say; or if it would warrant inclusion in your hanami basket or St. Paddy’s beer pong.

Before they were allowed to put cup to lips, our 19 test participants were asked two screening questions. The first was designed to set them up for embarrassment:

What is your favorite Japanese beer?

While eight respondents (42%) answered Yebisu to question one, the number who chose it in the blind taste test was a resounding zero. In fact, two of the eight ranked it dead last.

The second question was to quantify the anti-happoshu bias:

Would you rather drink a cold happoshu or a room-temperature Heineken?

This had an 11-to-7 split in favor of cold low-malt brew, with one belligerent respondent refusing to choose a lesser evil.

The pourers poured, the tasters tasted and to determine a winning brew, people ranked their six cups from best to worst.

The clear cut winner? Suntory Premium Malt’s. The most expensive can in the contest, it received double the first-place votes of its nearest competitor, though it was marked last on two ballots. It also scored best through our algorithm of one point for a first-place vote, two points for second, etc. This beer has allegedly won awards in Europe, so its high price may be justified.

Surprisingly, near-beer Suntory Rich Malt finished far from the bottom rung. That dishonor went to the second-most expensive (and some say prettiest) label: Yebisu. The Rich Malt also finished ahead of 5th-place Asahi Super Dry and 4th-place Kirin Lager. Is it possible that the default beers of millions are just not very good?

So there you have it: Suntory Premium Malt’s is the best mainstream beer to be found on convenience store shelves countrywide. And you can get away with serving happoshu at parties—if you use a glass.

Mar 4, 2013

Que Sera Sera

Que Sera SeraWhen I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what will I be. She didn’t mention anything about reviewing restaurants in Tokyo, which just goes to show how life’s set menu can turn up some interesting ingredients. Recently, on a quiet Ginza back street near Shimbashi station, an unexpected array of flavors was presented to me at Que Sera Sera.

The restaurant is a stylish jigsaw puzzle of materials sourced from all over Japan, which blend together under warm, atmospheric lighting to produce traditional décor with a modern sheen. One wall is tiled with Japanese roof slats from Kishu, another is white marble threaded with black. The ceiling is ribbed with bamboo canes, and the counter, at which we sat, is one solid piece of gingko wood.

Prices are not cheap, but in Japan paying a bit more tends to assure you are treated like royalty and fed as if your innards were made of priceless gossamer. It was with this spirit that we chose the premium seven-course osusume set menu (¥12,000 per person without drinks)—though other options go down to ¥7,500, which exchanges the meat course for baked fish.

In immaculate kimono and adorable apron, the okami-san Yuriko fulfils the traditional role of maître-d, hostess and sometime server, bestowing the space with a relaxing, homely quality. For those having trouble with the Japanese menu, don’t be fooled by Yuriko’s reticence in English—her culinary vocabulary is second to none.

Our initial appetizer was a gorgeous swirl of homemade yuba (tofu skin), with seaweed and sweet shredded crab. Five seasonal tidbits followed, whose perfect arrangement would have made the Rain Man blub into his poker chips. The star of these was a slice of seared wagyu sushi (a hint of the broader beef experience to come) accompanied by those peculiar Japanese roots that seem to have been foraged from underneath a magic toadstool: a cube of implacable taro, a not-particularly-giant giant butterbur, mini-potato-like koimo, and a chunk of moist scallop. As I was working out how to eat them while still preserving the aesthetics of the dish (that could easily be included in an avant-garde sculpture exhibition), the sumashi soup arrived. Miso soup’s clear and more stock-like cousin, this particular sumashi contained some Japanese greens, an artistic carrot and a divine dumpling of minced quail. As was intended, the soup and assorted knick-knacks combined to create a harmonious balance.

At the counter I was able to watch chef Norikazu—advised at Que Sera Sera by a former executive chef of Conrad Hotel Shiodome—slicing open limes that were not limes. Nor were they oranges. This was to be the defining ingredient of the night: the daidai. The flavor of this Asian citrus (no, it’s not yuzu) lies between lime and orange, and the taste still tingles on my tongue.

Our first experience of this Eden-like fruit was in the homemade ponzu sauce into which we dipped the delicacy-of-the-day—anago sashimi. This was the first time I’d eaten freshwater eel raw, and my nervousness was eliminated by its tender white meatiness, laced with a succulent line of fat.

Then came the masterpiece: 120 grams of seared wagyu beef, buttery in consistency with the perfect rare center. A daidai wedge was provided which I squeezed liberally over the meat, to eat piece by juicy piece. À la carte, the dish costs ¥6,000, and I have to say it’s worth every yen.

Pickles arrived to clear the palate, and the traditional finisher of liquidy rice-and-egg, zosui, which was taken a giant step up with several shelled oysters. The dessert of homemade “golden sesame blancmange” left a sated, elated feeling, and the warm goodbye from the okami-san painted some sunny Doris Day optimism on the cold night outside.

3F Soirées de Ginza 2nd Yayoi Bldg, 8-7-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3573-5188. Nearest Stn: Shimbashi.
Mar 4, 2013

Garlic dining at its finest: Top 5

Garlic ice cream at Hajime no Ippo

Garlic ice cream at Hajime no Ippo. Photo by Brandi Goode


Hajime No Ippo is one of Tokyo’s original ninniku restaurants, located in the entertainment district of yore, Kagurazaka. Established in 1995, nearly all of its dishes contain “white fukuchi” garlic, an esteemed varietal from Tenmabayashi, Aomori Prefecture.  Standout dishes include the grilled tuna neck with balsamic butter (¥1,480), the angel-shrimp garlic cream linguine (¥1,380) and the garlic ice cream (¥580), which is studded with chips of caramelised garlic and comes topped with a whole braised clove. 4-5 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3260-3500. Nearest stn: Iidabashi.


With mounds of garlic in every dish, this restaurant lives up to its robust reputation. Their towering garlic toast is actually a vertically standing baguette with a heap of roasted garlic smothered on top. Tuck in to some oysters with garlic sauce to turn your date on—and off, at the same time. Garlic clove and chili icons on the menu indicate each dish’s power (the toast clocks in at four cloves). 1-26-12 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3446-5887. Nearest stn: Ebisu.


So nice, they named it twice—and serve it with rice. Specialties include whole roasted cloves of garlic, garlic toast with baked cloves served on a baguette (horizontal, this time), garlic rice and gourmet sautéed garlic mustard pork. 1-26-2 Shoto, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5478-2029. Nearest stn: Shibuya.


This popular chain of garlicky restaurants was first opened in Yokohama’s Motomachi area in 1993 and has since spread to 18 other locations across Japan. They offer typically tasty, but not too drastic, ninniku-filled renditions of Western-style dishes like garlic rib-eye steaks, pan-sautéed shrimp in garlic lemon butter sauce, jambalaya rice and garlic pizza. Station Core B1F Queen’s Square, 2-3–8 Minato Mirai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama. Tel: 045-682-2870. Nearest stn: Minato Mirai.


The name is the same, but this version of Ninniku-ya is a chain scattered about the Tokyo department store landscape. Shoo the shopping queues with only a breath after breaking for some garlic ishiyaki bibimbap, hanba-gu with garlic sauce and a garlic-shaped white sesame cake with sorbet to sweeten you up. Various locations: Shinjuku Takashimaya Times Square, Lalaport Tokyo Bay, Mona Shin-Urayasu, Lumine


Mar 3, 2013

Watering Hole

Watering Hole

Japan’s homebrew hero Ichiri Fujiura and his wife Michiko Tsutsui, a former manager at Vivo, have pooled talents to bring thirsty Tokyoites a new addition to the jibiru circuit. Watering Hole promises a nice marriage of domestic and international selections, with big hitters such as Stone and BrewDog alongside local breweries like Isekedoya and Harvest Moon.

The nineteen taps—handmade by Fujiura—plus two hand-pumps mix creative choices and crowd-pleasers. Beer styles run the gamut from pilsner to barley wine, with something to satisfy every taste. Better yet, next year the couple’s adjacent brewery, Tharsis Ridge, will add its own craft beer to the lineup. Most pints run ¥1,000-¥1,300; a better deal than the half-pints, which start at ¥750. The indecisive can spring for a beer flight for ¥1,000.

To start, I opted for Beer Buddy’s New Zealand IPA, a hoppily crisp beer that suited the weather perfectly. My partner went for Nihonkai Club’s Bohemian Style Pils, and ended up with a glorified Ebisu. Not bad, but not great. We quickly moved on, ready for something heavier. Epic Brewing’s Rio’s Rompin’ Rye and Ballast Point’s Tongue Buckler seemed to fit the bill.

At 10 percent ABV, many bars serve the latter in a smaller snifter or tulip glass. Watering Hole gives you a pint. This alters the flavor slightly, emphasizing the hops more than the sweetness, and it proved the favorite. Epic’s Rye, on the other hand, seemed heavier and cloudier than on a previous tasting. We asked if it was the bottom of the keg.

Let me tell you: this staff knows their stuff. We found out how long the keg had run, that it was from the middle, and that it was a live beer, accounting for the taste change. Even more impressive was the friendly, helpful manner of the answer. These are people who love their beer.

On our way to being sozzled, we deemed it an appropriate time for food. The menu is small but varied. The organic green salad (¥700) is fresh and generous, but the dressing underwhelming. We wished we’d ordered the sausage (¥600)— we salivated every time the sizzling platters went out. The fried hops (¥350) come with a warning on the menu—“bitter!!”—but the flavor is nuanced. They paired nicely with the heavier-bodied Rye; less so with the already complex Tongue Buckler.

Luckily for jibiru fans this bar lives up to its name, offering a good range served by helpful staff, and decent food alongside. Skip the water, and drink more beer.

Open daily 3-11:30pm. 5-26-5-103 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku.

Mar 3, 2013

Dance: Shen Yun

Shen Yun

Courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts

Interestingly this theater company, which represents a 5,000-year-old Chinese tradition, is based in New York City. Shen Yun says this is because of persecution and co-opting of Chinese classical dance by the Communist Party. With the storytelling of the Peking Opera and the acrobatic derring-do of the Shanghai Circus, Shen Yun is a song and dance spectacular consisting of thematic routines that tell the stories of China’s many ethnicities, regions and dynasties. Performances are delivered with brilliant costumes, digital projections and an orchestra combining both classical Western and Chinese instruments. Shen Yun literally translates as “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” 

Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Apr 19. Nearest stn: Ueno. Bunkyo Civic Hall, Apr 22. Nearest stn: Korakuen. Yokosuka Arts Theater, Apr 28. Nearest stn: Yokosuka. ¥5,000-20,000.