Tokyo Takeover: Bird Land

Bird Land is a Michelin starred yakitori joint that only serves chicken skewers.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It seems impossible that eight courses of chicken could be delicious and not intensely boring but I'm not one to argue (much) with the Guide Michelin and I was looking for a tasting menu that wouldn't be too seafood heavy which can be pretty tricky in Japan. Lara looked at me a bit incredulously when I told her I had made reservations somewhere focused entirely on chicken but even without seafood there were still parts of the menu to push her (and me) slightly out of the comfort zones.

 Chicken Skewer Birdland, Tokyo, Japan

I'll admit, even though I like the idea of nose to tail dining, our first course was a little hard. Gizzard in gelee and skin that was more chewy than crispy wasn't quite what I was immediately prepared for. Lara had agreed to trying liver courses before the meal started but after the server noticed she hadn't finished her gizzard, he checked in again and she changed her mind. I imagine this happens often with foreigners less accustomed to eating innards than is the norm in this part of the world.

The next course for me was an extremely buttery small block of chicken liver pate and toast. I love chicken liver mousse and this was probably one of the richest I've ever tasted without being overwhelming, I even convinced Lara to eat some and while I still haven't quite won her over to pate, even she had to admit it was exceptionally creamy.

Our first skewer came with, still a bit pink in the middle with dabs of a basil heavy herb mix. As simple as it seemed, the flavors were complex and the chicken was excellent. Later in the evening we saw an American couple across the kitchen sending back their skewers because they weren't cooked enough. Just eat them slightly pink in the middle, it's delicious and I think if a Michelin starred restaurant were giving people salmonella, we'd hear about it.

 Chicken Skewer with Fresh Wasabi. Birdland, Tokyo, Japan

"Are they making real wasabi?!" Lara asked me, watching the cooks grate and pinch.

"It looks like it"

Our skewer is once again deceptively simple in appearance.

"I thought I didn't like wasabi but it turns out I don't like American dyed horseradish, this is delicious!"

I nod my head in agreement. Fresh wasabi on everything please.

At the beginning of the evening, I certainly could not have predicted that possibly my favorite course would be a silky smooth house made tofu drizzled with a grassy olive oil and garnished with cracked black pepper and the world's smallest yet most flavorful tomato. I have no idea how so much flavor was packed into a tomato smaller than a penny but what initially seemed like a ludicrously small fruit for this play on caprese turned out to be just enough.

After this I get a whole skewer of livers and even though I love chicken liver mousse and the livers on this skewer are, like the mousse earlier, quite mild and buttery, by the time I'm finished I've reached my limit on liver for the evening.

For Lara, the liver courses are replaced with other chicken pieces you can order from the a la carte menu that aren't on the tasting menu. Some of them are bigger hits than others which is also true of our other skewers at this point in the meal. We have chicken oysters (a cut often abandoned with the spine), mushrooms, sansho sprinkled thighs and even cheese grilled right on the skewer that leaves us trying not to make a gigantic stretchy cheese covered mess as we bite it off. The chicken is always delicious and medium rare but some dishes have us reaching for the togarashi more than others (which maybe is the point). It seems like it will never end but eventually there's a break.

Before dessert our server asks if we'd like to order anything else and we briefly debate ordering another round of wasabi skewers but eight skewers and a few other courses later, we're actually pretty full. For desserts we order one each of the two puddings. Lara's flan is slightly overcooked but otherwise enjoyable. My rose and pistachio rice pudding is completely different than I expected, having a more western rice pudding or sweet porridge in mind. Instead it's completely smooth and firmer than the tofu we had had earlier. I assume it was made of rice starch and was almost like eating a mochi custard or a room temperature version of Turkish dondurma. It is fantastic.

There are of course plenty of cheaper places to get mountains of (much weirder) skewers in Tokyo but if you're looking for grilled meat somewhere that can be a little more accessible to foreigners than your typical smoke filled yakitori joint, I think Bird Land is a great option. The longer tasting menu costs 8,400JPY (approx US$75) and you will leave more full of chicken than you ever thought possible.

Bird Land Ginza is located at Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo, Ginza, 4 Chome, 2−15 塚本 素 山 ビル B1F‎ (inside Ginza Station next to Sukiyabashi Jiro). You can find out more information and make reservations through their website.

Tokyo Takeover: Give Me All Your Beer and Bourbon

Look, it's no secret that I love whisk(e)y, craft beer and good pub food so yes, of course, I've got some recommendations for Tokyo. 

Ant'N Bee

This small basement bar tucked away in Roppongi doesn't seem like much until you're presented with the twenty tap beer list divided into lagers, weizens, hybrids, ales, black beers and "strong" all from Japanese breweries. Beers can be ordered in four sizes, so you don't have to commit to something you don't know you love, except for the strong beers which only come in small because, well, they're strong. The taps rotate but my favorite while we were there was the "Maitai King", a 12.7% Imperial Stout that wasn't messing around. My preference is for dark beers and I was very happy with the number of porters and stouts available when we went, not something I get to say often.

Along with a long beer list, they also have a pretty extensive and varied food menu. More people than I would've expected were ordering some of the Italian specialties but we played it safe and went with Japanese pub classics karaage (fried chicken) and house pickles. I'm not saying it doesn't exist but I've never had bad fried chicken in Japan and this was no exception, crispy on the outside and hot and steamy on the inside, these were the perfect bite size morsels to go with beer. The potatoes that come with are hand cut and also fried to a golden perfection. We had both the regular house pickles (daikon, lotus root and carrots) and the seasonal special (pickled leaks with balsamic) and they were both delicious. My one complaint is that theoretically this bar has "smoking" and "non-smoking" areas but it's so small it doesn't really matter. Unfortunately indoor smoking is just part of traveling in Japan.

Ant'N Bee is located at 5 Chome-1-5 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo, Japan (basement level) and is open 5:00pm-6:00am 365 days a year (yep). You can find out more on their facebook page or website.

Craftheads

Wait, if this bar is called Craftheads, why are those pictures of bourbon? Well, my friends, this place does happen to have a good number of taps but THIS is the bourbon selection:

I know, I'm sorry, it was dark and I took these pictures with my phone but trust me when I say this is three rows, three or four bottles deep of bourbon. Not scotch, not Japanese whisky, not Irish whisky, just beautiful beautiful American bourbons and ryes. For those not in the know, good bourbon is nearly impossible to find outside of the US, except for one liquor store in Bratislava (true story) and Japan. After all, Suntory is really Beam Suntory these days (along with Jim, this also means Maker's Mark, Basil Hayden's and Knob Creek) and Kirin owns my favorite underrated whiskey, Four Roses. Along with more types of Four Roses than I even knew existed they also had a full line up from Buffalo Trace Distillery (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Blantons and of course, PAPPY) so basically every one of the three pours I had that evening was an agonizing decision but I left pretty happy and I can't wait to take Dan there on our next trip to Tokyo.

Here we had delicious perfectly fried onion rings with a spicy mayo and more house pickles. I will always order the house pickles and I have yet to ever regret that decision.

Crafteads is located at 1 Chome-13-10 Jinnan, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0041, Japan. They are open Tues-Fri 5PM-Midnight, Saturday 3PM-11PM and Sunday 3PM-10PM. You can find out more information on their website.

Looking for more mouthwatering food pics? Check out my new food only insta @runawaybunnyeats
 

Tokyo Takeover: I <3 Coutume

But, guys, like, I really <3 Coutume's Tokyo location.

I was already in love with Coutume with my first sip of coffee but then they brought the food. Our first morning there I had a salad piled high with avocado, feta and grapefruit. It came with a side quiche which I think is the opposite of what I thought I was getting. Shouldn't quiche come with a side of salad? The crust on the mushroom quiche was perfectly buttery and flakey and the egg custard silky smooth. Lara's croque monsieur oozing bechamel and stuffed with tender asparagus was fantastically rich and delicious. Half way through my quite large salad, the server came over with another dish. He put down a small glass and says "with set". I didn't remember there being anything other than quiche, salad and coffee with my set, but who am I to complain? The small glass contained a vanilla custard, crumb and rhubarb compote. Living in Seoul, this was the first time I had had rhubarb in nearly two years. It was used perfectly as the tart contrast to the rich custard.

Since it was near our airbnb, we ended up going to Coutume almost every day we were in Tokyo. One morning we ate breakfast across the street at Clinton St Baking Co but after finding the coffee lacking, picked up lattes to go. One morning we just had delightfully flakey pain au chocolat and chausson aux pommes. Our last full day I couldn't resist the croque monsieur Lara had had the first day and she had a big salad with slices of avocado and ham. I picked up a piece of rosemary lemon olive oil cake to eat for breakfast the next day before our early departure. I might have a serious Coutume addiction. Good thing there isn't one in Seoul?

(j/k please come to Seoul, Coutume and let me give you all my money thx)

Coutume is located at 〒107-0062, 5丁目-8-10 南青山, 港区 東京都 107-0062, Japan and is open 7:30-9:30 seven days a week. Breakfast sets cost between US$10-$16 and pour overs and espresso beverages cost between US$3-$5.

You can find more of my favorite places to get caffeinated in Tokyo here.

Looking for more mouthwatering food pics? Check out my new food only insta @runawaybunnyeats

Tokyo Takeover: Robot Restaurant (Only in Japan or Over Rated Tourist Trap?)

Depending on the reviews you read, the Robot Restaurant is either a restaurant that puts on a pretty good dinner show, a burlesque show with questionable bento boxes, ninety minutes of "only in Japan" flashing lights, sparkles and insanity or a complete waste of money and time.

Me? I'm team "only in Japan" insanity.

Is it over the top? Is it totally cheeseball? Is it borderline too expensive? Absolutely. But like all "tourist attractions" it's a good time if you let it be.

If you're looking for something traditional (please, lets not even talk about the myth of "authentic") than probably something with robot in the title already isn't for you. Spend your money on Kabuki instead. But if you're looking for taiko drummers wearing rainbow wigs and maybe some dinosaur fights, read on.

Yeah, I'm setting the scene with pictures of the bar bathroom because I want you to know exactly the kind of situation you're getting yourself into.

First off, if you've used google maps and ended up in front of a place that says "this is not robot restaurant" don't worry, you're doing good. Turn around and on the opposite side of the street you should see the box office where you can purchase tickets or show up with your confirmation email and get your tickets. Robot Restaurant is in the building google maps thinks it is, the entrance just happens to be around the corner.

Be prepared for immediate and overwhelming sensory overload. The staircases and hallways have brightly colored back lit butterfly wallpaper, the philosophy behind the bar decor seems to have been "GIVE ME ALL YOUR SHINY THINGS. NO I DON'T THINK YOU UNDERSTAND ALLLLLL YOUR SHINY THINGS" and even though arriving early to watch the live music pre-performance in the bar is strongly encouraged, there isn't actually enough seating for everyone to do that so you're gonna be crowded.

I recommend drinking 1 to 6 Sapporos beforehand.

Soon you will be ushered downstairs to find your assigned seat. This is also when bento boxes are handed out if you ordered one. Most of the reviews I've read of the bento boxes range from "not great" to "the worst thing ever" so we had a quick ramen dinner before we got there. Before the show starts you can line up to buy more beer and popcorn. I bought us extra beers so I wouldn't have to stand in the line again between acts. I have zero regrets about that decision.

Once the lights dim, important safety announcements are made. Flashing lights, moving robot parts, etc etc. Make a dodge. We also had to practice ducking in case some of the larger set pieces came near us while making their way down the narrow performance space. This proved to be particularly relevant to me and Lara since we had front row seats at the end of the row where pieces moved onto the set. A lot of dodge making.

The first act has floats with light up taiko drums, scantily clad fan and parasol dancers (though I would still say people that describe the show as burlesque are being generous) and an electric guitar player in an insane wig that makes it all feel a little Mad Max: Fury Road. There is theoretically some sort of plot to each act but I had no idea what it was and it didn't really matter.

At this point we have yet to see any robots but honestly, who cares?

The second act is the battle of the animatronic dinosaurs. Now not only do we have robots but we have dinosaur robots which is basically more than anyone could ever ask for. I think these dinosaurs are fighting the battle between a princess and an evil witch but I could be 100% wrong. The battle ends with a puff of smoke and good prevailing (I think?).

After the dinosaur battle is a bathroom and beer break. There are more men's bathrooms than women's bathrooms since most of the audience members are male. I barely made it back to my seat in time (you will have to stand to the side if you don't make it back in time) where I was given a sparkly glow stick with which to practice waving back and forth. It's still unclear to me when we were supposed to use the glow stick after that since there didn't seem to be any more synchronized waving but let's just go ahead and add it to the list of things that make this experience both bizarre and fantastic.

"Hey, that also doesn't look like robots?!"

You're correct, it's not robots. It's not even robotic floats. They're also not doing The Robot. It's b-boys doing some really cool dancing with either hand held lights or some sort of light up palms in their suits.

Next the announcer comes out and starts introducing each of the women performers who do a little dance before the grand finale which is where things really just devolve into chaotic insanity. There's men dressed as robots, there's a pony, there's some singers and drummers and a lot of dudes in creepy horse head and you know what? It's probably better if I just show you.

In the end, everyone circles around for high fives and waves and you walk back out through the light up hallways and wonder what the hell just happened in the best way possible.

I've read that most hotel concierges can get buy one get one tickets. We stayed in an air bnb this trip but I was able to find discount tickets through govoyagin (not an affiliate link, just a way to make the show seem more reasonable).

Robot Restaurant is located at Japan, 〒160-0021 Tokyo, Shinjuku, Kabukicho, 1 Chome−7−1, 新宿ロボットビルB2.

Tokyo Takeover: Best Places to Escape the City

One of the things all my favorite cities around the world seem to have in common is the ease with which you can take a break from the city without actually leaving the city. You don't always have time or desire to take a day trip, sometimes you just want a couple hours recovering from pushing through the crowds in Harajuku. Luckily, between temples, gardens and parks, Tokyo has more than got you covered.

Imperial Palace East Garden

 East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Tokyo, Japan

The Imperial Palace itself is still home to Japan's Emperor and royal family* so you can't actually go in but you can book a tour to see some of the palace grounds. Though I haven't taken a tour, I've walked a fair ways around the exterior moat and wandered through the East Gardens. The gardens are free but you have to stop by a booth at the entrance to take a token as the number of people allowed in at one time is restricted. There's a mix of wide open spaces, planned flower beds and paths through more heavily wooded "wilderness". I was there at the beginning of December when the leaves were turning which was stunning, though I imagine in the Spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the flower beds actually have flowers in them, it's quite lovely too.

*Embarrassingly, I did not realize Japan still had a royal family before our first trip there, even though it's the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Thanks, American public school education.

The gardens open at 9:00 am and close between 4:00 and 5:00 depending on the season. They are always closed Monday and Friday. The entrance to the gardens is located at 〒100-0001 Tokyo, Chiyoda, 千代田1-1

Senso-ji

Ok, full disclosure, the first time I went to Senso-ji was during Golden Week last Spring and it was definitely not the place to escape the crowds. There was however a ton of street food and a ninja vs samurai mime show which was pretty fun and even crowded the temple grounds are lovely. When I went this past December, Nakamise-dori (the shopping street leading up to the temple) was still pretty crowded but once we got to Senso-ji itself, the crowds thinned out allowing us time and space to watch koi and discover the smaller sculpture gardens and shrines around the main temple building. From certain places you can catch glimpses of the top of Tokyo SkyTree while standing next to a pagoda, which weirdly makes me feel more removed from the city rather than reminding me that I'm still in it.

Senso-ji is located at 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito, Tokyo 111-0032, Japan. As far as I know, it's open 24/7. You can find more information on its website.

Meiji Jingu (Inner Garden)

The heavily wooded park around Meiji Jingu is probably the absolute best to forget you're in the city (and to take a break or gear up for the potential crowds and madness of Harajuku). Walk through the first Torii gate onto the wide path towards the temple and you'll be completely surrounded by trees. Look up and the city skyline will have completely disappeared, replaced by rustling leaves. Just walking the path by the giant line of sake barrels and towards the temple is peaceful enough (even when we went during Golden Week) but if you're looking for an added level of escape, pay the 500 yen "maintenance fee" to visit the Meiji Jingu Gyeon. There's a meandering path that will take you through woods and gardens, some landscaped, some wild and past a lake where you can take a break and watch the koi. The Iris gardens were empty when I went in early December but the Japanese Maples were on FIRE.

Meiji Jingu opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. Meiji Jingu Gyeon opens between 8-9:00 am and closes between 4-5:00pm depending on the hours. It is located at 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo 151-8557, Japan and you can find more information on its website.

Hamarikyu Gardens

These former Imperial Gardens hold a special place in my heart because it's the first place I visited in Tokyo (after the first open ramen restaurant we could find because we arrived at 2pm STARVING) and also because it has a small soft serve truck (or at least it did last Spring). These gardens are on the bay so you get the salty sea breeze I love so much. Along with trees hundreds of years old, these gardens have many wide open grassy spots where blankets were spread out and couples and friends were picnicking and a large duck pond with a teahouse. There's a 300 yen fee but if your feet are aching from shopping in Ginza or maybe you need to take a nap in the sun after an early morning at Tsukiji, it's well worth it. 

Hamarikyu Gardens are located at 1-1 Hamarikyuteien, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0046, Japan and are open 9:00am-5:00pm year round. You can find more information on their website.