Recently Crash and I performed a miracle, aided by the self-sacrifice of a large proportion of my family. We did a job in Tokyo together. Aside from actually spending some time together, and remembering how much better it is to work with someone else, we also snuck in a visit to Iron Chef Chen Kenichi's restaurant.
My Japanese hasn't improved much, which means that our communications with our waiter, whose English was pretty limited (and yet infinitely better than my Japanese), were amusing to say the least. The whole situation was helped no end by the fact that the set menus had no pictures* - only long pages of Japanese script(s). So we waved our fingers at the pages and said "That one". With no idea what we were about to be served, we ordered a beer (fortunately "beer" is understood almost everywhere) and settled in for our magical mystery tour.
I failed to take my camera charger with me, so these photos are from my iPhone, and therefore very dodgy.
First course came out, and we were told that these were, clockwise from top right, fish, mushroom, chicken, something whose name I can't remember but I recognised it when I ate it, and in the middle, meat.
The thing I can't remember was pretty tasty, but the chicken and meat were the highlights. The chicken had a sauce vaguely reminiscent of sweet and sour, but beautifully balanced and the meat was deep fried to a crisp (I couldn't tell you what kind of meat it was from the taste, although it was probably beef) and coated in a rich, sweet sauce.
The next course arrived with great haste.
This was the first thing to arrive. A separate bowl had the dish itself, which we were told contained shrimp. We were somewhat baffled - does anyone actually decorate a prawn dish with a lobster shell? And if not, had we actually signed up to pay enough for lobster? It was divided up and served to us as this.
That is an excessively bad photo, but the orange flower is carrot - all one piece! The bowl did, in fact, contain lobster and cucumber and a very gentle sauce. It was divine.
The pace didn't slow, and this one - "beef with a bit spicy" - was promptly served.
This had a classic Schezwan flavour, perfectly executed. There were fried red chillies that I was going to move aside, but they tasted amazing. Hot, but more tingly than painful. At the risk of sounding like an Iron Chef judge, it stimulated the palate rather than burning the mouth. The basket was a deep fried wonton wrapper and that flower was daikon. The daikon was a perfect palate cleanser at the end of the dish. Another massive winner.
Still no pause, the next dish was announced as shark fin.
Um. Ok, so here is the flaw in pointing at a language you don't understand. I considered the appropriate response and two things occurred to me. One, the Dalai Lama teaches that if you are offered food that you don't eat on principle, you should eat it, both out of good manners and respect, and because the food is already prepared, and wasting it would be a greater ill than eating it. And two, it's pretty hard to make a moral stand when you don't speak the language of the people to whom you are directing your protest. So I figured now was my chance to at least try to understand why people kill so many sharks for this dish. In short, I still don't. I've had it once before, in a dodgy place in Bangkok and I suspect it was merely "shark fin flavour" and it was essentially tasteless. This one had more flavour, but the flavour was mostly the soy sauce and it really didn't rock my world. I will have no problem avoiding shark fin in the future.
The next was deep fried fish and mushroom. The night was overtaking me by then, and I completely failed to take a photo, but it looked pretty much like two fish cocktails and a deep fried mushroom - one of those ones with the frilly edges. I can't tell you what that tasted like, because I gave mine to Crash. The fish pretty much tasted like fried fish. Not a stand out.
They were still going. Another dish quickly replaced the fish. The poor waiter got half way through describing this dish - "Crab egg sauce with...." - and had to dash back to the kitchen to be reminded of the English word for.... "abalone". Once again we wondered if we had missed a zero on the cost - lobster, shark fin and abalone in one night! Apparently the whole concept overwhelmed me so much that I forgot to photograph it until I was half way through.
That sauce was pretty fab - quite rich but I am completely failing to come up with any way to describe the flavour. The abalone was quite tasty - not quite like anything else, but closest to a cross between scallop and squid - but it was just about as rubbery as you have always heard it is. Considering the texture and the price, I'd rather eat scallops.
(As an aside, the next night we had abalone sushi, and it was far better, although I still reckon I'd rather a cheaper alternative - please don't tell my host! He was most gracious and it's probably just my uneducated palate.)
We were, at this point, marveling that we had come to the end (as no dish appeared the moment we had finished the last) without a single rice dish. We were also commenting that we were incredibly full, and no rice had been necessary. We sipped our beers and wondered at the strange phenomenon that every single woman in the restaurant (except me) was sitting with her back towards the windows, while all the men faced the windows. Even those sitting three rows away from the windows. Even across a couple of sittings. I offer no explanation for this.
We were content, we were relaxed, we were very full. And then we were fed more food. With rice.
This one was fiery hot, but still with that weird tingly sensation. It was probably awesome if I could have eaten it properly. If I had spooned it onto the rice and eaten it all mixed up, I'm sure it would have all balanced out, but I was so full I could only put tiny morsels in my mouth at a time. The dark red parts of the sauce were really hot, but unbelievably tasty. In the end, my stomach defeated me. The waiter looked a little shocked at how little we'd eaten and asked if it was too spicy. "No", making the universal sign for full stomach.
As we sat and and stared over our tummies, dessert arrived.
Fortunately, neither Schezwan nor Japanese cooking is much into your chocolate mud cake for dessert. The martini glass had a coconut pudding, which was mousse-like. The berries and mint and lemon on the top mixed in with it magnificently, and I patiently slid tiny amounts of it into the gaps between the previous 7 (!) courses. It took a while, but I ate it all. The little snow ball at the bottom was a rice ball with bean paste (I think). I've never been a big fan of that style of dessert, and full as I was, I only managed a nibble. Lastly, on the plate on the top right, was a lychee sorbet. Wow. Just wow. The perfect way to end this meal.
Even though I didn't love everything, the meal showed me all sorts of dishes and flavours I haven't had before, which pretty much nails the brief for a visit to an Iron Chef restaurant. I would go back, I think, and order from the a la carte menu (with pictures!) to select the things I discovered I loved, and avoid the shark fin.
A word of warning though - it's easy to find on a map, but nothing we found in English mentioned that it's on the 6th floor. Also, beware small roads that look like short cuts - they may be closed for reconstruction and it's a long way back to the main route.
* This is pretty unusual for restaurants in Japan.