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: Get Caffeinated

A while ago I wrote Runaway Coffee Finds Around the World which included two of the shops mentioned in this post, my original plan was to go back and edit it with more Tokyo shops, shops in Seoul and places we found exploring Kansai but I realized that was just too long. So instead, here are my top five choice to indulge in my addiction in Tokyo.

Coutume Coffee and Pain au Chocolat, Tokyo

Coutume 〒107-0062, 5丁目-8-10 南青山, 港区 東京都 107-0062, Japan

Oh man, Coutume deserves (and will get) its own write up because the food options here are also fantastic. One of things the Tokyo outpost of this French coffee shop has going for it is that unlike almost every other coffee shop in Asia, it opens before noon. In fact, it opens at 7:30 a.m. which means any future Tokyo trips will definitely include choosing a place to rest our head walking distance from this spot. There's so much going on here. A variety of single origins, your choice for preparation, espresso drinks, dutch coffee/kyoto drip and AND the price range for beverages is $3-$5 (yes, even for a single origin pour over, I can't even). I went here every day my last trip to Tokyo and I bought a bag of beans to bring home to my husband. My only complaint is that I wish the tasting notes had a translation to either English or French because the one I got from google translates didn't make a whole lot of sense (but that's not a real complaint because maybe I should just learn Japanese if I really want to know).

Miyakoshiya Coffee Minato-ku, Tokyo Shimbashi 1-chome 7-10 Shiodome Superior building

Miyakoshiya seems to have a number of locations all over Tokyo but we only went to the Shimbashi location near our hotel. The Shimbashi location has a decidedly rustic look with lots of polished wood and mismatched tea cups. The first time we went on a week day morning it was empty and they were playing Willie Nelson (my kind of place). We got Guatemala and a Mocha Mattari pour overs. For those not keeping up on their yen to dollar conversions, the Guatemala was just over $7 while the Mocha Mattari was a bit over $10, which is pretty similar pricing to coffee in Seoul. What wasn't similar to most shops in Seoul, was the quality. The Mocha Mattari might be the best coffee I've ever had. I still regret not spending the yen on bringing back some beans. We went back on a weekend day and it was packed and full of smokers (less my scene) and ordered iced coffees. The iced coffees were VERY strong but required quite a bit of milk and sugar to overcome their bitterness. If you go, I'd stick to a week day visit and the single origins. I'm not sure of the actual hours here but I think we went as early as 9:00 a.m.

Cafe de L'Ambre 8-Chome-10-15 Ginza Chuo Tokyo

Opened in 1948, with the original owner still roasting the beans (yes, he is literally 100), Cafe de L'ambre is a must visit for its smokey, bar like atmosphere and amazing vintage decor alone. The menu has both single origin pour overs (done with cloth filters) and numerous iced coffee drinks. Even though there is an English language menu, I ended up with a regular iced coffee instead of the "rich iced coffee" I was trying to order. The regular iced coffee is served with coffee cubes which I really appreciated, however similar to Miyakoshiya, it was very strong and very bitter. I prefer drinking coffee black but I added all of my tiny pitcher of milk and a fair amount of simple syrup. Dan successfully ordered the "water drip" coffee which we think was just straight Kyoto drip/Dutch coffee concentrate in a shot glass. Unlike my iced coffee, it was smooth, rich and delicious with an almost fatty mouthfeel even though it didn't have any sort of milk or cream. Dan definitely won at ordering this round.

Update: I returned to Cafe de L'Ambre at the beginning of December and successfully ordered the rich iced coffee which comes in a cocktail glass and is smooth and delicious. Lara ordered the egg yolk coffee which is very sweet and has to be consumed very quickly or the yolk cooks. It wasn't bad, but it's probably a try it once for the experience sort of drink for most people.

 Blue Bottle 3-13-14 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku Tokyo, 107-0062

Yep, that Blue Bottle. Just like any Blue Bottle in America, you can expect a bit of a line, the need to be on your toes if you're going to snag a seat and fantastic quality and service. Watching the baristas on the line here is beautiful, fast and efficient, they clearly take pride in their work. I even saw a barista send a cup to the kitchen because he had accidentally moved the cup too fast, slopping a bit over the side! It hadn't even disturbed his latte art! I considered offering to take it, but I don't think that would've gone over well. Unfortunately, unlike American locations, the Aoyama Blue Bottle doesn't open until 10 am so it's better for days with a late start or when you need an afternoon pick me up.

 Clover Cafe 雷門2丁目18-15T・Sビル Taitō, 東京都 〒111-0034 Japan

You're probably surprised by the inclusion of a character coffee place in this list which is totally fair BUT don't think just because it has a cute cat this cappuccino isn't good. Even though I did originally choose to go into Clover Cafe because I wanted the novelty of a "only in Japan" adorable coffee, it turns out the drinks here are well balanced with a nice full mouth feel. I'm also in love with the Earl Grey cake. Clover Cafe is right by Senso-ji, so it's a good place to rest your aching feet after exploring the temple and various market streets or if you haven't had your morning cup you can stop by before heading to the temple, since Clover Cafe is another shop that opens bright and early at 7:30 a.m. (8:00 a.m. weekends).

Taipei Takeover: Banking with Dinosaurs (Thoughts on a City)

It's hard to put my finger on what I liked so much about Taipei. I can tell you why I love Tokyo or why Beijing really didn't do it for me or why my feelings about Seoul ping pong all over the place. The city itself isn't attractive, it doesn't have the cared for look of Tokyo or the futuristic gilt of Seoul. Like Beijing, mopeds are so numerous it seems like you're always in the middle of a scooter gang. But there's something quite literally in the air in Taipei that makes me immediately more relaxed. As a lifetime coastal dweller, I can appreciate the beauty of the ring of mountains around Seoul but they make me feel as trapped as the stagnant air that often layers on top of the city. I know I'm on a peninsula but why can't I feel the ocean?

Taipei though... Taipei the air moves. The damp chill is familiar and even the buckets of sixty degree rain feel right. While we rode in a taxi from the airport to downtown Taipei, I could let the trees blur and the wide freeway alternating between green hills and city buildings could have easily been in the Bay Area instead. People walk slow, like they do on the West Coast too, I never have been a slow walker so maybe this is my one complaint about Taipei.

The first evening we were in Taipei, a warmish Saturday night, we rounded a corner and almost ran into a group of teenagers screaming and laughing and I was so startled realizing the only time I see kids the same age in Seoul is if I ride the bus immediately after class gets out. Sure, I see toddlers in the park and let them pet our dogs all the time but I don't know the last time I saw teenagers having fun.

In Seoul the buildings are shiny on the outside but built quickly and on the inside there are cracks. In our own apartment, behind its giant gold door, we never know which bathroom lights are going to work and one time our door knob spontaneously combusted. We have a huge jacuzzi tub but the two times I've used it I've listened to the pipes burbling for days wondering if at any moment sewage would be coming back up (a real thing our dogsitter had to deal with once while we were out of town). In the news you read about new towers with cracks in the foundation or aquariums that leak. Rome may not have been built in a day but there's a good chance the current version of your neighborhood in Seoul was.

Taipei might be uglier but at least it seems honest.

Land Bank Evolution Museum, Taipei Taiwan

One morning we walked in the rain to the Taipei Miniature Museum (there is also a Miniature Museum of Taipei) only to find a note taped on the door saying it was closed for two days. We shifted our plans and found ourselves at the 100+ year old National Taiwan Museum wandering through a self described maze analyzing the effect of capitalism on the landscape of Taipei. It ended in a room with a cloud symbolizing The Cloud from which we all access information. Then we walked through another floor with extremely dated dioramas of Taiwan's flora and fauna. Taiwan has had its own problems with maybe bulldozing too much of the old in the name of the new but now instead of a constant battle, the two seem to exist in a comfortable truce.

Across from (but part of) the National Museum is the Land Bank Exhibition Hall. One side of this building is filled with information dense displays about evolution followed by a huge hall of dinosaurs and other creatures (but mostly dinosaurs). The other side of the building is actually in a two story bank vault and discusses the evolution of the banking system in Taiwan. Even to my much more business minded husband, the information on the banking side was boring and repetitive but we both agreed walking through the aisles of a bank vault was cool. I suspect Dan could've spent hours looking a the exposed mechanisms of the bank vault door.

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One morning we went to the National Palace Museum but elbowing through endless tour groups to look at 100 different bronze mirrors didn't do it for us. It's not that I can't appreciate a few cool bronze mirrors or calligraphy sets or celadon plates but that I don't have the patience to be trapped between waves of people in a room full of only that. I'll take the less visited dinosaur bones and a bank vault full of adding machines.

After the Evolution Museum we walked through the 2/28 Peace Park on a hunt for bubble tea. The well tended parks in Seoul are one of the things I like most about the city. In Taipei the parks have more pavement but the trees seem to grow wild.

We continued in search of the nearest Chun Shui Tang (the original maker of bubble tea), not realizing the location I had marked was beneath the National Theater in Liberty Square. We walked a few circles around the slippery bricks before heading under the stairs and being guided to a table where we received a menu slip to fill out. Foolishly, still full from our Sichuan lunch, we each chose to get a medium bubble tea. Dan got classic black milk tea and I got jasmine. We had spent a lot of the day walking in the rain so we also ordered a plate of green tea cookies, content to stay inside and take a break for a while.

Our trudge through the rain was rewarded with glasses of bubble tea bigger than our face and a plate piled with rich, buttery green tea cookies. The milk tea at Chun Shui Tang is unsweetened and the pearls are small and chewy. I prefer my bubble tea on the less sweet side but the pearls here also taste completely unsweetened and I had enjoyed my cup of Happy Lemon bubble tea, purchased at the Taipei 101 food court the night before, more. Maybe sacrilege. But maybe the original just isn't always the best. The teahouse was relaxing and dry though and by the time we drained our huge glasses and conquered the mountain of cookies, we were ready to go back out into the world.

Or at least to the subway that would take us to hot showers and dry socks.

The National Taiwan Museum and Land Bank Exhibition Hall are open Tues-Sun 9:30-5:00pm and admission is a whopping TWD $30 (USD $1.00) for a joint ticket. The National Taiwan Museum is located at No. 2 Xianyang Rd and The Land Bank Exhibition Hall is No. 25 Xianyang Rd. For more information about special exhibits, check their website.

Taipei Takeover: Top Picks for Eating Your Way Through

If you've read about our street food lunch in Jiufen or saw my post about one of our favorite breakfasts, you might've gathered that our eating in Taiwan was mostly pretty casual. I did originally have one fine dining reservation but I had to cancel when we experienced some delays getting our new, giant passports back and shifted the days of our trip. I was a little disappointed initially, but we ate so well that I quickly forgot about it all together (plus, it gave us more money for checking out some of Taipei's cocktail bars and craft beers). Here's what we had.

Din Tai Fung

For our first meal we decided to just commit and really tourist it up by going to Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese chain that brought Shanghai Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) to the world. The original location in Taipei holds a Michelin Star but we decided to combine our mountain of soup dumplings with our trip to Taipei 101 and went to the location in the basement food court. The counters above the check in desk were showing a wait time of 45 minutes for two people when we arrived (leading me to go grab a bubble tea for a quick blood sugar boost) but we really only waited thirty minutes and it was totally worth it. We started with dry sauteed string beans (my favorite always), followed by the regular pork XLB, the crab roe and pork XLB, the shrimp and pork shao mai, pork bao and veggie dumplings. Unless you're a vegetarian, I recommend skipping the veggie dumplings. Dan was also not that impressed with his shrimp shao mai. The XLB lived up to the hype and if we were to go again we'd probably just double down on the regular pork. We finished our meal with two mini black sesame buns which I absolutely loved. This was probably our second most expensive meal in Taipei and it still only set us back around $30 (US) for the two of us. If you didn't skip lunch because you were on the plane, and ordered a reasonable amount of food, it would probably be a bit cheaper.

There are locations all over Taipei but this Din Tai Fung is located at 110, Taiwan, Taipei City, Xinyi District, City Hall Rd, 45號台北101購物中心 (basement foodcourt of Taipei 101)

小魏川菜餐廳 (Xiao Wei Sichuan)

This is the kind of place where you might have that momentary traveler's panic of "ooops, what did I get myself into". This Sichuan restaurant may not look like much and if you've never had the Chinatown experience of eating in a giant room where the mode of conversation between the servers sounds like angry shouting (over the tables of happy Chinese families and friend groups also shouting), than it might be a bit overwhelming. I don't think any of the staff speaks English, so you'll need to be prepared to bring your miming A game for getting seated BUT there is a version of the menu with both English and Chinese so ordering isn't too stressful. Since it was just the two of us, we whittled it down to three of our all time faves, dry sauteed string beans (yes, again, always), twice cooked pork and mapo tofu. The green beans here were outstanding, a lot of crispy ginger, spring onion and maybe pork grumbles all throughout and when we had eaten all the beans we were both scooping whatever seasoning was left onto our rice bowls. Our twice cooked pork was good but a little light on spice and Sichuan peppercorns, we're not sure if that's just how they do it or if we got white peopled* because the mapo tofu had quite a bit of heat (and was perfectly silky). If you are looking for Sichuan food OR are just the type of traveler that likes going where you're not going to see any other tourists, this is definitely the place for you.

*A common problem that happens outside of the US where you order spicy dishes and they automatically get toned down, even when you insist you really want the heat.

Xiao Wei Sichuan is located at 100, Taiwan, Taipei City, Zhongzheng District, Gongyuan Rd, 13號3樓, there's no English signage so be prepared to put your character matching skills for the test. It's located on the third floor.

    永康牛肉麵 (Yongkang Beef Noodles)

    You can't go to Taiwan and not eat beef noodles, it's an absolute must. I've read reviews mentioning long lines at Yongkang but there weren't any when we went on a drizzly week night. Even if there had been, a bit of a wait would still have been worth it. Like the Sichuan restaurant, this place is pretty bare bones in service and decor but I'm not really one to be picky as long as the food is good. The menu here has pictures and some English and I went with the spicy soy beef noodles while Dan went for the regular beef noodles. Both had tender, fall apart braised beef and rich flavorful broths. We each preferred the soup we had ordered so you can't really go wrong, it's just a matter of what you're in the mood for. After a day spent exploring in chilly weather, it was just the thing to hit the spot.

    Yongkang Beef Noodles is located at No. 17, Lane 31, Section 2, Jinshan S Rd, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106. The also have a website but it doesn't have any English.

    上引水产 (Addiction Aquatic Development)

    Our most expensive meal, this place was both very good and pretty darn weird. Part fish market, part gourmet grocer, part wine bar and part sushi restaurant, this is definitely a unique experience. The first step is definitely to get on the waitlist and get your number for the large standing-only sushi bar. This is accomplished by finding the cordoned off entrance to the sushi bar and being a bit aggressive about getting a server's attention to put you on the list, otherwise somebody will definitely push in front of you to get on the list faster. Once you're on the list, you can explore the gourmet grocer section (and if you don't want to wait, instead grab one of the many many boxes of sushi to go) or grab a drink at the wine bar. The gourmet grocery section was very exciting to us because the selection of things like cured meat and cheeses seemed absolutely insane compared to Seoul (I bought some aged goat cheese to smuggle back into the country and I had zero regrets). Also there were small cups of salmon roe for about a $1.00 (US) and I considered buying one and taking it like a shot while we were waiting.

    Once we got our spot at the sushi bar we learned that there is no English language menu despite being heavily frequented by tourists and a very patient server graciously asked us about different types of fish and made some suggestions. It's possible we ended up with more food than we would have had we ordered on our own but we devoured ALL of it without ending up too stuffed. The quality of all the fish was excellent and the caramelization on our BBQ salmon steak was beautiful but still left it medium rare on the inside. This mountain of high quality fishes plus beers, cost around $45 (US) and I'm not sure you can get better price per quality anywhere in the world. (I'm not saying you can't get better sushi in Tokyo, just that it's going to set you back a bit more).

    Addiction Aquatic Development is located at No. 18, Alley 2, Lane 410, Minzu E Rd, Zhongshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 104, the also have a website.

      阜杭豆漿 (Fuhang Soy Milk)

      Fuhang Soy Milk is on just about every list of top picks for Taipei and was recommended to us by friends. If you (like us) don't speak Chinese, this is definitely going to be another "what did I just get myself into" situation. A lot of people recommend getting here early to be at the front of the lines but I recommend showing up late after the breakfast rush if you're going on a weekday. We showed up around 11:15 and the line was part of the way down the stairs (not all the way down the block and to the subway station like some places say) and moved very quickly. We were probably only in line for fifteen minutes. Once you get to the front of the line, madness happens. Everyone else around you will be shouting orders rapidly and the older women serving you don't have a lot of patience for your ignorance.

      The first question will be salty or sweet which refers to your big bowl of housemade soy milk. We went with two bowls of sweet which are plopped on a tray which you'll slide down to more food choices. Now is your time to just aggressively point at whatever catches your fancy or whatever the next woman holds up. This isn't really a time to say no to anything because you don't want to be that guy holding up the line. Pay. Find a place to sit. We ended up with two salty chinese doughnuts, our soymilk and an egg sandwich with sesame bread fresh out of the kiln. The soymilk here is rich and delicious and very filling, we had some regrets about not ordering one sweet and one savory but we were caught up in the moment. The doughnuts are fresh and crispy on the outside while airy on the inside. The egg sandwich is the star as far as I'm concerned. The bread is both sweet and sesame-y and the scrambled scallion eggs inside are perfectly seasoned. Take a look around you to see all the ways you can eat these things. I saw doughnuts inside egg sandwiches, egg sandwiches being dipped in the soymilk and just people slurping down there big bowls of savory soymilk. It seems pretty much anything goes.

      Fuhang Soymilk is located at No. 108, Section 1, Zhongxiao E Rd, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100 on the second floor. If you find the end of a long line, you're probably there.

      Basil, Sesame Oil Chicken and Chili Ice Cream from Snow King in Taipei

      雪王冰淇淋 (Snow King)

      You didn't really expect me to do a review with out at least one ice cream, did you? Snow King has more flavors than you could possibly imagine, from standards like strawberry or chocolate chip to more unusual fruit flavors like litchi or guava to alcoholic flavors like Kao Liang Wine (listed on the menu as 58% alcohol) to a million nut flavors to the crazy savory assortment we got. We started with scoops of basil and sesame oil chicken. We were warned that the sesame oil chicken had quite a strong flavor and pieces of frozen chicken in it, but that didn't deter us. We weren't at a place with 70 ice cream flavors to get vanilla. When our ice cream arrived, the server suggested we eat the basil first because the chicken would over power it but neither of the flavors were delicate. They were both delicious and became even more delicious when mixed together. However, it seemed like something was missing and it WAS my 30th birthday, so I went up and ordered a scoop of the chili. I got another warning, this time that it was very spicy which only increased my resolve. Another customer chimed in that I was making a good choice. The chili was HOT but it mixed perfectly with the other two flavors. It was a little much for Dan on its own but I was all about it. Ice cream lunch FTW. This place is definitely worth a visit, even if you don't want to go as weird as we did. Maybe you just need a happy hour scoop of Kao Liang Wine?

      Snow King is located at 100, Taiwan, Taipei City, Zhongzheng District, Section 1, Wuchang St, 65號2樓, it's on the second floor up a narrow flight of stairs, we walked by it the first time so keep an eye out.

      Top Choices for Eating your Way Through Taipei

      Top Choices for Eating your Way Through Taipei