Monday, September 28, 2009

Tomodachi farewell

I'm just going to ignore the fact that I've published seven times for the entire month of September, and ask that you all do the same. Can we agree to that? Because I've had an intra-continental move, a sibling's wedding on the other coast, at least six different beds and many tough farewells in that time, and I think we should all start fresh. So.

Let's set the Wayback Machine to Wednesday, September 9th, which was to be our last dinner with our dear neighbors, Chikako and Toshio. Ever since we first met, they'd been telling us about an incredible tempura restaurant in Tokyo, Bill Clinton's favorite place. When they heard we were leaving, they oh-so-generously invited us to join them for dinner there. Um, OKAY!

So we met Chikako on the 4:16 train from Yokosuka-Chuo toward Tokyo, and landed in Ginza with an hour to spare before dinner. Chikako slipped away for a few minutes of luxury shopping while Josh and I took in the sights, and then we all explored the Sony showroom before walking to Ten-Ichi (link goes to English review site), Tokyo's premier tempura restaurant.The service was incredible. Women in kimonos led us to a waiting room and brought hot tea and towels while we waited for Toshio to join us. They took our jackets and umbrellas and made sure we were comfortable.
Once Toshio had arrived we sat at a table for eight, wrapped around a tempura station with the chef in the center and another party to our right. More tea, beer, and three salads were waiting for us there, along with a bowl of grated daikon and tempura sauce and a dish of salt and lemon for lightly flavoring the shellfish yet to come.
The salads were our first bites of dinner, and they were delicate and lovely. The first was Western-style greens and vegetables with a sesame ginger dressing. Next came mildly flavored pickled vegetables, and third was my favorite: sweet strips of jellyfish (I swear!) and more julienne veggies with some light, delicious dressing.

But then the real show began. The chef prepares one bite at a time, moving the diners slowly through a full meal of tempura. We had our neighbors to help us decipher what was what, but honestly, every bite I ate that night seemed more delicious than the last. Everything was incredibly delicious, even the first item, which I admit had me nervous at first glance.See why? I'm still not sure exactly what part of the prawn this represents - legs and belly? Some part of the head? Its dignity? - but I can say that there was no actual meat present. I wasn't about to insult our hosts so I popped the whole thing in my mouth with just a little salt and lemon, and oh, Internet. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe how delicious it was. It was kind of like the best popcorn you ever had, where you can still taste the oil but not feel it on your tongue, where the kernel is perfectly crispy without any chew at all. But add to that the taste of your favorite seafood, or really just the suggestion of it. That bite may have been my favorite of the evening.

But of course we were just getting started. Next came two different small pieces of fish, tail sections neatly butterflied and served with an inch of tail still attached and meant to be eaten like a garnish. The fish was perfectly tender and fresh, and the tails reminiscent of that first bite of prawn shell. Then came a shelled prawn, and then asparagus...
...and these, which were no bigger than sugar snap peas, but are actually tiny green peppers.
Bite after bite appeared on our paper-lined tempura plate, and sake arrived and was drunk, and conversation drifted between English and Japanese, and occasionally Josh and I would steal glances at one another to make sure this wasn't a dream. We ate tempura fried ginkgo nuts on toothpicks, and refilled our sauce bowls with daikon and sweet broth as the food kept coming.

Of course, it had to come to an end. The chef bowed deeply and more kimonoed ladies cleared our tempura plates and dishes, and brought miso soup and more pickles to cleanse our palates.
And then naturally they moved us to a different table for dessert: the most delicious fruit I've ever eaten, a mango that must have been grown by a little old man who has worked his whole life to produce the perfect fruit.
Josh and I were reeling after that meal, and we followed it up with coffee and a long train ride home with our dear friends.

We have led charmed lives, and have eaten our fill each and every day. We've been to California and New York, we've taken classes and taken advantage of friends' and family's formidable skill in the kitchen. But this meal was the best of either of our lives, and after a trying year in Japan, might just be one of the little voices from across the sea, calling us to someday return.