Sunday, 2 May 2010

Restaurant review: Din Tai Fung, Shiodome

I am indebted to for their review of this place; I was in the neighbourhood after reserving a ferry ticket and needed somewhere that was open at 5pm on a Sunday. Not always an easy thing to find, unless you're willing to settle for something bland from a chain. This place also had the benefit of being a walk away in the depths of the Shiodome thicket of skyscrapers.

I didn't realise until I arrived that Din Tai Fung was in the same building as Bice, the wonderful southern Italian 'sky restaurant' where I had my birthday lunch. Still, as I walked past some sort of screechy faux-opera being staged in the sunken courtyard outside and joined the queue snaking along blond wooden stools outside the shopfront of the restaurant, I was intrigued to see what made this place so popular. An irreverent part of me from my days as a student of Spanish literature is always tempted to apply the first part of García Lorca's Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, which keeps chanting 'a las cinco de la tarde' (meaning 'at 5pm') in an ever more ominous refrain, to restaurants: there is indeed no time that is more terrible or deathly in the search for a good meal. This makes it all the more noteworthy that Din Tai Fung had a line of people patiently waiting, despite the plethora of other, queueless restaurants in the building.

I guess they all knew a good thing when they smelled it. As I got closer to the entrance, shuffling along the bank of stools, my nose quivered slightly as the aroma of pork broth got stronger. It smelt rich, slightly fatty and unctuous; there was a definite note of spice, but that didn't diminish its meatiness. Din Tai Fung's signature dish is 'xiao long bao', steamed dumplings loaded with minced pork and a shot of intense meaty broth. I had read about how these were made before - the broth is solidified into aspic that then melts with the heat of the steam inside the dumpling - but hadn't had the chance to try them. The waitress also brought a laminated card of eating instructions in English, complete with cute little diagrams. Far from being patronised, I was glad to have the guide: it meant I could avoid committing some faux pas by eating them in my usual inadvertently uncouth fashion. I did as I was told and dipped the dumpling in soy sauce, manoeuvered it onto a china spoon with my chopsticks, pierced it and pressed it slightly to release the broth and layered some shreds of ginger on top - all this before eating anything! The first mouthful was sublime, though: the sharp fragrance of the ginger shards and the savoury hit of the soy sauce balanced the round, earthily soft meat and the shock of the hot broth in both taste and texture.

There were various other components included in my 2000 yen set meal: a small dish of mysterious nutty tofu with pickled greens, a large helping of prawn fried rice, an astringent lemon jelly which was significantly nicer than I expected from its rather unflattering photograph on the menu. The star act, though, was indisputably those dumplings. They came in two forms - four plain, and two whose wrappers had been twisted into a pineapple shape to hold the booty of fat prawns amidst their folds. I couldn't decide which I liked best. Next time - and I am sure I will be going back - I'd be very tempted by the boxes of dumplings they sell by the till to steam at home.

If this is typical Taiwanese food, book me on the next flight to Taipei...

Friday, 30 April 2010


It's finally Golden Week, the mega public holiday that lasts for ages. Technically it started yesterday, but this being Japan, where everyone keeps the rules, nobody bunked off school today as it was not technically a holiday and thus we had three tests.

Bank holiday weekend plans mostly involve sleeping but will also, assuming we manage to get ferry tickets, involve an overnight trip to Niijima, an island south of Tokyo which has nice scenery, a faux-Grecian onsen hot spring and other assorted delights. There are three options for getting there: flying in a very small plane, which costs rather more than I want to spend; the overnight ferry, which takes nine hours and does not come with anywhere assigned to sleep unless you pay lots extra, meaning you sleep on the deck; and the jetfoil boat, which costs a bit more than the ferry but takes under three hours. I will be going for option 3, unsurprisingly for those of you who have travelled with me before.

I saw someone carrying a bag today that looked like it contained boutique-style clothes. Entertainingly, the name of the shop was 'Smackyglam' - is that a lowbrow version of heroin chic, I wondered? The internet tells me that not only is it a well-known brand in Japan, but Mischa Barton has modelled for them, thus making herself an icon of Smackyglamour. What a distinction to have!

I have also taken tentative steps towards turning a (semi) new leaf with regard to learning Japanese - I hope the start of May will be marked by a slightly more focused and rounded effort at learning the bloody language... anyway, I looked at my new exam prep kanji book, and almost got excited by the title of weeks 1 and 2, 'Going Out'. 'That will be relevant, for once', I told myself. My sense of eager anticipation fizzled abruptly out when I opened Day 1, and discovered it was about car parks. Gutted.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Practical jokes

The other day we learned the word for 'prank' in Japanese. After giving us the timeless example of the pin stuck on the chair, which always struck me as a rather cruel example of the genre, Nishimura-sensei asked for examples of practical jokes we had played as children. I don't know whether I actually did this or just lifted the idea from the pages of Enid Blyton, but I tried, haphazardly, to explain the concept of an apple pie bed. It got lots of laughs, once people had understood - that kind of humour tends to appeal more than the sharper sarcasm or irony that British people seem to prefer.

Anyway, I raise the subject because, as some of you may know, I myself have been the subject of a couple of pranks recently. Anyone remember the time Facebook announced I had died? And yesterday there was a slightly strange phone call from a blocked number, with a faintly electronic-sounding American accent saying he was 'Phil Temple' and wanted to ask me some questions... I have identified the culprit, and I am fairly certain he/she isn't reading this (though I may be wrong there) but I have yet to enact my revenge. If anyone has any gems that they'd like to contribute so I can get my own back* then please do share them with me. I think this one needs something more than clingfilm over the toilet or a glass of water propped up on the door...

* This was, incidentally, one of the best kids' TV shows of the 90s, and I was in the audience, though alas, my cousin Gemma did not get to put Saracen from Gladiators in the Gunk Dunk. Actually, if anyone knows where I could get hold of a Gunk Dunk, that might work very well for what I need...

Tuesday, 27 April 2010


PS If you sign in with your Googlemail name, or with all sorts of other blog site logins, you can leave comments, which would be lovely...

Restaurant Review: Arinomama

UPDATE: Having rushed there in vain to get in before last orders at 1.30 this afternoon, I have finally learned the name of this place: 'Arinomama', which means 'as it is' or 'frankly'. Rather a good name, don't you think?

I went to my favourite local restaurant for lunch today, and I'm ashamed to say I still don't know its name despite having eaten there more times than I can count. It never really seems important: I always describe it by its location (tucked away on a small side street behind the udon noodle restaurant, over on the other side of the level crossing over the railway), and besides, though I keep extolling its virtues to people, it's a rare occasion that I'm not eating there alone. This doesn't bother me in the slightest: one of the things I love about the place is that there are always several lone diners, treated with utmost respect and minimal distraction. The faint classical music in the background - real music, not Muzak - adds to the sense of tranquility.

Adding to my air of contentment is the wonderful food, served in pleasingly hefty quantities. The restaurants specialises in teishoku: meaning 'set meals', this results in a large tray being set in front of the diner, with a wide array of delights in little bowls. Teishoku has some essential components - rice, miso soup, pickles - but here they're distinguished by small superior touches. The miso soup is loaded with seaweed and cubes of fresh tofu; there are always three types of homemade pickles; the rice is so plentiful I always wonder if I'll manage to finish. Then there are the exciting extras: soft silken tofu, served with tiny shreds of spring onion and waiting for a slug of intense dark soy sauce to complete it. Crisp shredded cabbage with julienned red and yellow peppers, the occasional flavourful but unintrusive sliver of red onion, wide-hipped chunks of bloodshot tomato, peppy sesame dressing. Another vegetable side dish, this one typically earthier than the others, perhaps including some delicate spindly mushrooms, mellow carrot or slightly smoky aubergine.

And all this without mentioning the star attraction: I've yet to encounter a main dish I haven't liked. As well as a respectably varied main menu (with a well-translated English version, I might add, which makes the whole experience a thousand times easier), there are five or six daily specials. A typical dish is 'buriteriyaki' (Japanese amberjack... no, me neither, and I don't think it would be that much help showing what it looks like when alive, as I've never seen it in that state either, so here's a picture of it in sashimi form), luscious, unctuous fleshy fish, almost completely devoid of the kind of bones that used to plague the Queen Mother (RIP), served in a deep brown, slightly sweet, rich sauce.

Today, though, I had my all-time favourite: tomato gyouza dumplings. As far as I can tell, this is a rare venture into fusion cookery; my fumbling attempts at description have invariably resulted in baffled expressions on Japanese people's faces, and as this confusion has persisted even when I've spoken English, I think I can safely assume it's the dish rather than my explanation which is new to them. The dumplings are remarkably simple: a slender sliver of pork, ribboned with a healthy amount of fat, is wrapped around a chunk of the same sort of tomato that goes into the salad. This bundle is then enveloped in a thin wrapper of soft, slippery dough, making a half-moon shape. The whole caboodle is then fried, forming delicious and cholestrol-heavy crispy bits where they've been left to sizzle in the pan. Dipped in soy sauce mixed with a little chilli, they are wonderfully comforting - punchy yet familiar-tasting, with bite but soft enough to gobble shamelessly.

The experience is completed by a bottomless ceramic handleless cup of murky brownish green tea, which has a miraculous capacity to clear the mind and is thoughtfully served from a Thermos-style dispenser left on the table so you can have as much as you like. There is also cold draft beer or a considerable range of shochu or sake if you're more inclined towards dipsomania. There are even three choices for dessert: carrot cake (which emerges as a curious mixture of carrot cake and corn bread because of its use of carrot juice rather than grated carrot), tangerine jelly or creme caramel. And all of this comes for a base price of under 1000 yen - no more than seven pounds for a feast of Japanese culinary treats, and not much more if you add drinks and desserts to the mix. If there's anywhere better for a weekday dinner, I defy you to show me where...

Sunday, 25 April 2010


Something said by someone I met this month, Stanza, got me thinking about objects and what they can mean. I was about to start writing about to what extent I could be defined by my possessions, and then I started making a mental list of things to include. Recent acquisitions include a pestle and mortar (the pestle made of a knobbly stick), an ice bucket, a green snakeskin Pasmo smarcard holder, a printer still in its box, a box of luminous magnetic drawing pins, a red cashmere jumper, and a box of Lindt cognac chocolates. You might think that these objects put me into a box that, while I certainly inhabit it much of the time, can sometimes seem like a pigeonhole.

What strikes me more is that each of those things I mentioned was a gift; when I try to think of what I've bought myself recently, I really struggle. There's a CD of Japanese soul covers, half a blowtorch (I am a co-owner), a new razor and electric toothbrush, and that's about it. Even the toothbrush was actually bought a couple of months ago. This paints a picture of me as a distinctly thrifty person, not the first adjective I would come up with for myself, though who am I to say?

This isn't to say that I don't like having things - far from it. I take great pleasure in having nice things and using them often; there's no question that I enjoy wearing my new jumper (as I am right now) more than I do when I don a tattier older one that is that little bit less soft and luxurious. I am certainly grateful when people give things to me. That isn't just a momentary feeling when I receive a present, but is something more lasting; it sounds sanctimonious but I do feel a ripple of appreciation each time I use something I treasure that I've been given by someone. But some of that appreciation stems from a sense that I couldn't have got whatever the thing is, or sometimes that I just wouldn't have thought of it. That doesn't mean I don't want or need it, but I think it's an interesting conclusion to reach that I often don't know what I want. I feel like that doesn't reflect me when it comes to life choices - at least, I hope it doesn't - but there's no denying it on a more material level.

Given the choice, though, I would always buy myself a nice lunch rather than a new gadget, and a holiday would come before a computer or a new phone pretty much every time. Does that make me and my wants transient? Or are my memories just more important than my material legacy?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Retrospective: Al Dhiyafa Street, Dubai

The green neon of Al Mallah shrieks out against the off-white pallor of the streetlamps. The desert-dwellers of yore (and also the desert safari-trippers of today, I would imagine) must be startled by the death of starlight at the hands of these all-powerful man-made lights. The effect is utterly uncompromising, and on reflection I think you could do worse in finding metaphors for the sudden, vigorous impact of Dubai upon the Arabian desert on which it stands.

Below the signage, there is an ever-present mass of people chatting, gossiping, giggling and joshing, clustered around stainless steel tables that litter the pavement. The enticing smell of meat and falafel on a charcoal grill seeps out from the open doorway of the restaurant, flooding the corner with olfactory temptation. There are white waxed-paper bundles strewn over the tabletops, holding the booty of shish kebabs, scoopfuls of pickled chilli peppers and warm pitta pockets clutching nuggets of grilled lamb. The waiters have the look of those who are habitues of the hard sell, but at 60p for a falafel sandwich nobody is complaining. Besides, Al Mallah is famed for having the best falafel in all of Dubai, no mean feat in this Arabic metropolis with an indefatigable appetite for Lebanese food.

For me, the most delectable treats of Al Mallah can be found in the drinks section of its plastic-laminated menu. Gaudy pictures of hurricane glasses with fluted rims promise exotic concoctions of mango, coconut, strawberry and banana. The drinks' names - the Maradona, the Platini, the Charles and the Diana - are wonderfully evocative, without giving the slightest hint as to the contents of the glass. I could guess that there won't be any alcohol involved - Al Mallah is very clearly not an establishment linked to a 4* or 5* hotel, which is a precondition for alcohol sales in Dubai - but beyond that, I have no idea whatsoever what I'm ordering. That's all part of the fun, though.

I remember sitting at these same tables on my first visit to Dubai, back in early September 2008. It was Ramadan then, which meant all but a few restaurants were shut until sunset, and those few that remained open tended to hang an obscuring curtain across their windows to become discreet from the gaze of passers-by. Al Dhiyafa street would be weirdly quiet until iftar, the meal to break the fast upon nightfall, at which point it would suddenly become thronged with people. Customers would crowd into Al Mallah, but most had enough sense to sit in the overlit but blissfully cool air-conditioned interior. Being British and therefore deprived of heat, I stubbornly sat outside and tried to convince myself that the high 30s temperature was pleasant summery weather. The sweat on my brow must have just been because of one too many chillis, I told myself. Still, I remember rushing to the fan outside the air-conditioning shop across the street on my way home.

This time it was much more comfortable. My cousin Laura and I sat sipping our mocktails next to a boisterous group of young people, speaking Arabic yet composed of men and women, a comparatively rare sight even in cosmopolitan Dubai. Around us, the busy shopfronts of restaurants, clothes boutiques, banks and pharmacies stayed lit, taking in and pushing out customers well into the night. Cars plod along the dual-carriageway up towards Al Satwa, past the back-alley tailors and the mosque or back down towards the Sheikh Zayed Road superhighway. I can't imagine this rare pedesrian paradise of a street not being there, yet it's said that this area is soon to be home to demolition trucks and wrecking balls, rebuilding it into yet another of Dubai's upmarket but faintly faceless new neighbourhoods. I can't help but mourn Satwa for the vibrant, friendly and mixed neighbourhood that it has become. And if everything is demolished, where will I find the best falafel in town on my next visit to Dubai?