Regional Dishes at the Mandarin Bar *updated 16 Jan 2015

Hachinoko bee larva

Hachinoko bee larva

** Note that the Nagano Insect Platter has now been replaced by the Hokkaido Delicacies (below). 16 Jan 2015

The Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo’s historic Nihonbashi district is host to one of the hottest culinary events, NOMA Japan, in early 2015. The culinary program at Japanese hotels are quite strong, and the Mandarin Oriental is an example of this. Take a look at some of the small bites served at the Mandarin Bar. Currently on the menu are regional foods from Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, a mountainous area that we love to escape to for fresh air, blue skies, soba, and saké.

I was so curious to see an Edible Insect Tasting Platter on the Snack Menu. I thought that maybe the bar menu was influenced by the NOMA team as they are famous for serving ants. I was recently served ants at Den in Jimbocho and of course it is being found on more menus around the world. I was told that one of the chefs on staff wants to feature more regional cuisine and this is an example of just that.

There are three types of insects on the tasting platter, and I have tried the locusts 25 years ago as it is also found in Yamagata where my family is from, so I thought it would be a piece of cake. I was not as brave as I thought I would be. The insects sat on the table for a long time before I could muster the courage the even attempt picking something up. I was advised to start with the bee larva, hachinoko. It was actually good. Better to not even think about what you are eating and just dig in. All of the insects are cooked in a sweet soy broth, so the flavor profiles are quite similar, it’s more about texture, at least it was for me. The baby bees were soft and quite palatable. I would go back for more of these, yes, I would.

Kaiko no Sanagi (silkworm)

Kaiko no Sanagi (silkworm)

The silkworms, kaiko no sanagi, were the hardest to try as they looked the most like an insect. If any of you have seen the movie A Bug’s Life you may feel like you are eating your friends. I assumed that the silkworm was going to be crunchy as the outer skin looks hard. These were actually soft, chewy, and not bad. Don’t judge a book by its cover. It was fine and I would eat it again.

Inago locust

Inago locust

Locusts, inago, I have had in the past, so I knew I could have it again. Of the three, these are the most recognizable insect. My aunt in Yamagata tells me that when they were kids during the wartime that her siblings would collect these and bring them to school where they would be sold for making this dish. Of the three, this was the hardest to eat, as the locusts do retain a bit of crunchiness. But the sweet soy flavor is appealing.

I believe the insect tasting platter will only be on the menu for a little bit longer. I do encourage you, if you are an adventurous eater, to come to the Mandarin Bar and go for it. If you are going to eat insects, then why not do it at a gorgeous bar overlooking Tokyo with stars in the skies.

Hokkaido Delicacies

Hokkaido Delicacies

From left to right: Smoked oysters in olive oil, braised bear meat and bamboo shoots, venison jerky, Matsumaezuke of herring roe, dried squid, and kombu, and salmon jerky.

I was told that the next featured regional food on the menu will be delicacies from Hokkaido and had a chance to try this as well. Hokkaido is the island at the north of Japan. Surrounded by waters so a rich seafood culture, but also filled with dense woods, so wild animals as well. This is much easier to dive into as everything is recognizable. The smoked oysters are creamy and rich. I was surprised that my favorite of the five was the braised bear meet and bamboo shoots, it is rich in umami. The jerky in the middle is made from venison, something I grew up with in Minnesota. The Matsumaezuke includes kazunoko, herring roe, which is not found in other regional versions of this dish, so very over-the-top. Herring roe is treasured for its crunchy texture, which is balanced with soft kombu and squid. Finally, on the far right is salmon jerky. This dish is new to the menu and will be on it for a while.

The cocktail program here is strong with many original cocktails, featuring seasonal touches, or try one of the Japanese whiskies, which are getting a lot of press for beating out their Scotch peers.

The Mandarin Bar is on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. No cover charge.

Mandarin Bar

Chuo-ku, Nihonbashi-Muromachi 2-1-1

11:30 a.m. – 2 a.m.

03-3270-8188

Book Review – Drinking Japan by Chris Bunting

Drinking Japan

Drinking Japan

This indispensible guide will become the bible for anyone passionate about Japanese beverages. Regardless if your preference is for shochu or nihonshu, Chris has covered it all. Clearly written by a reporter, no detail is overlooked, and the information is easy to understand. The descriptions of each bar transports you there and he even includes specific drinks to try once you get there. The bars are not limited to Tokyo but he also guides you on major cities including Sapporo, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, and where to go in Okinawa.

I know this book is a winner as many of my Tokyo favorites are included such as the New York Bar & Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, he even mentions to come as the sun is setting, which is what I recommend to all of my friends. Buchi, Buri, Maru, Akaoni, Taproom, Takara, and Sasagin are other favorites that are included in this guidebook. He definitely has his pulse on the bar scene in Japan.

There are also a slew of bars that are new to me that are on my list to check out that include Shusaron for its collection of koshu (aged nihonshu), Garari and its impressive kokuto shochu list, and Cheese and Wine Salon Murase in Ginza. And although I am not much of a whisky drinker, just reading his chapter on Japanese whisky has me thirsty to visit some of the bars listed in the book.

As for covering beverages he definitely has a well-trained palate that I would trust. He recommends Bryan Baird’s beers and in the Q&A below his favorite awamori at the moment is Shirayuri, also one of my favorites. Just knowing this I am confident in reading his notes on the beverages written about in Drinking Japan.

The chapter on the drinking culture that is to be found in Japan is essential reading for anyone who will be drinking in Japan. And Chris explains why Japan is truly is a drinker’s paradise. While other books go into greater detail on nihonshu, he more than covers the base on what readers need to know when drinking nihonshu in Japan. The same goes for shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and whisky.

One of my favorite parts of the book are his directions on finding each bar. Essential information as I have found myself on numerous occasions lost, and I have a good sense of direction.

Chris is quick to point out others who have helped him along this journey, including professionals like John Gauntner, Bryan Harrell, Phred Kaufman, and many more.

This book will become a reference book for drinks in Japan. I have already dog-eared many pages for my next night in Tokyo. For those who do not read Japanese, there is essential Japanese in the book for names of beverages and addresses for bars, which will help you while on your evenings out. Even if you are not physically in Japan, the information presented on the different beverages alone makes it worth investing in. A portion of the proceeds are going to Japan Earthquake Relief.

Chris was kind enough to answer some questions posted below. Very insightful answers – see his suggestions for nursing a hangover and why he would not open a bar in Japan.

Drinking Japan – A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments

By Chris Bunting

Tuttle Publishing

272 pages

$24.95 (2127 JPY on Amazon Japan)

For more information, check out his website: http://drinkingjapan.com/

1. What drink do you have at the end of a long day?

Depending on the mood, I might have a glass of beer or something a bit stronger: whisky, awamori or shochu. Recent favourites have been a bottle of Shirayuri awamori from Ishigaki island, which has delicious unctuousness that I find really relaxing, and a bottle of Japanese grain Kawasaki whisky from the independent brand Ichiro’s Malts.

2. If a tourist is coming to Tokyo and only has time to visit five bars which five would you recommend?

I am going to blather a bit before I answer your question because I want to make clear that I don’t think it is possible to come up with any definitive list of top bars in Tokyo. I went to hundreds of bars for the book and the one thing I discovered was the foolishness of my initial objective of finding the “100 plus best bars.” Everywhere I went I seemed to get a new recommendation for a hidden gem. Japan’s, and particularly Tokyo’s, alcohol culture has a boundless energy about it and it just cannot be nailed down. There are new places popping up all the time. I found myself writing at the end of the guide that all my recommendations were just my favourites from the small slice of Japan’s alcohol life that I had been able to experience, and urging readers to use the book to get out and discover their own new places. That said, six (I am cheating) of my favorites at this point are Shot Bar Zoetrope, a Japanese whisky bar near Shinjuku station; Shusaron, a bar specialising in aged sake near Shinagawa station; The Aldgate, a great pub with good craft beer in Shibuya; Katakura, an izakaya near Ichigaya station with a great selection of awamori, shochu, and sake; Tafia, a rum bar near Roppongi,  and Bar Lupin, a really historic bar off the Ginza where Osamu Dazai and other literary greats used to hang out.

3. Again, advice for a tourist who can only have a few drinks during his stay, can you suggest one of each of the following? Nihonshu, craft beer, Japanese wine, shochu, awamori, Japanese whisky.

I will try. This is a fiendish question because it is a bit like asking someone to pick out one French wine. But here goes (I will cheat again by not naming particular brands in most of the categories but styles instead because that is the key issue): a really wild kimoto or yamahai sake rather than just sticking to the clean, dry sakes; one of the Baird Beers from Shizuoka, a brewery that plays freely over a whole range of styles; a wine made with the koshu grape, which is one of Japan’s special contributions to the wine world and often has a delightful shy and delicate touch; a sweet potato shochu from Kagoshima (my favourite brand is Manzen, because I had a great time visiting Manzen san’s tiny craft distillery in the backwoods of Kagoshima); a “kusu” (aged) awamori of some sort, rather than just the unaged stuff; a Japanese whisky that has been aged in mizunara oak, another unique Japanese style, which often offers distinctive sandalwood and coconut aromas and tastes.

4. Your favorite bar outside of Tokyo?

Pub Red Hill in Takayama city. A lot of the bars in my book have absolutely mind-blowing selections of alcohol of one sort or another. Red Hill doesn’t, but it is really friendly and is run by a good friend of mine. Bars are not all about hundreds of bottles on the shelves, they have to have soul as well.

5. Any remedies for nursing a hangover?

Don’t drink too much the night before. Gallons of Pocari Sweat, if you have strayed.

6. If you could create/own a bar what would it be like? Where would it be? What would you call it?

I would not be able to run my own bar. It takes dedication, attention to detail, and persistence, among other qualities. I don’t have those. If I did have to set up a bar, I would set it up somewhere other than Japan, because my bar simply would not be able to compete in Japan’s very competitive nightlife.

7. Through your travels you had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. Who was the most memorable and why?

Tatsuro Yamazaki, the 90-plus year old owner of Bar Yamazaki in Sapporo. I write about him quite extensively in the concluding chapter of the book. His life story is extraordinary (including living in a boiler and being cleaned out by theft and fires ) and I think it helped me understand why Japan’s bars are of such a high standard.

8. If you could trade jobs with one of the people you met from your travels who would it be? (Someone who had an awesome bar or maybe a distiller, etc.)

As I say, I don’t think I have it in me to do any of these people’s jobs, but if I could be the assistant to Toshihiro Manzen, who runs a small craft shochu distillery in Kagoshima prefecture, I would be a happy man. It was such a beautiful place: in the middle of the forest, birdsong drifting into the distilling hall, the sound of the river …. The stills, believe it or not, are wooden and the spirit they produce is really distinctive. I had a tremendous sense when I was there that Manzen san was toiling away at something that will one day get international recognition.

9. Your favorite bar snack (or food with alcohol)?

Cheese. Any cheese. Not because it goes with all alcohol but because I love cheese and am starved of it here in Japan (see page 204 of my book).

10. Where are we most likely to run into you in Tokyo? At which bar?

At a not-very-fancy izakaya called Mugiya out the back end of Shimbashi station. It serves standard Japanese lager in small glasses and the fried spam gives me terrible jip the next morning, but my colleagues at work go there so I go too. It is about the company as much as the drink. When I get my way, we go to a place in Nishi-Shimbashi called Craft Beer Market, which has reasonably priced craft beer that is becoming increasingly popular among my colleagues. Recently, my roistering has been restricted because my wife and I just had a baby.