Monday, September 8, 2008

Japanese Cuisine

So ever since a couple of friends took us to Wagamama for dinner, I've been curious about the things they serve at Japanese restaurants that aren't sushi. Now, Wagamama is a chain that serves a westernized versions of many of those dishes that I find quite tasty... but it's clearly not authentic and as such, an offense to Japanese food snobs everywhere. (See Yelp! reviews)

As an amateur food snob (of the Western variety) myself, I decided this needed some more looking into. I've never been a big fan of tempura or teryaki, and ever since I was introduced to it in college, the only thing I've ever ordered at a Japanese restaurant is sushi. Now, this makes a good deal of sense, since sushi is something that is incredibly dependent on the chef and ingredients, so when you have an opportunity to eat at one of Boston's many fine Japanese restaurants, it's hard to turn away from the exquisite sushi and ask for some noodles in broth... but that's what I'm starting to do. It helps that we live in Cambridge now, where the sushi scene is decidedly inferior to places like Coolidge Corner, while living two blocks from Porter Exchange, which has the semi-upscale Blue Fin(pretty good sushi and large menu)... but is mainly dominated by food stalls like Ittyo serving traditional Japanese fare with tables cramped together and overflowing into the hallway.

Right now I'm sticking to basics: ramen, udon, soba, and donburi. At this point, I've had udon twice... once at Blue Fin and once last night at one of the Porter Exchange food stalls. I have to say that I'm still not quite sure where I stand on it... and there are so many varieties it may be a while before I am. At Blue Fin I had shrimp tempura udon, and they gave me a big bowl with the broth, udon, and shrimp tempura in it, another small bowl, and then a shaker with some red pepper mixture. You pulled out the noodles and shrimp you wanted into the small bowl, spooned some broth onto it, and then seasoned it... eat, repeat. It was pretty tasty, though fairly subtle, and it was interesting how the broth became flavored as the tempura broke down in it. Last night at the food stall (whose name I can't remember), I tried vegetable and fried tofu udon... which I wasn't terribly impressed with at first, but came to appreciate as the meal progressed. The main problem was the lack of a second bowl... I had really liked that feature at Blue Fin (though I had to ask my waiter what I was supposed to do with it at first) and definitely missed it this time out. The missing second bowl, and very crowded first bowl, highlighted the sweet glaze on the veggies and tofu... which struck me as a bit out of place and overly strong at first, but as they mixed with the broth it added a nice layer of complexity. Therefore I suspect that if I had been pulling out udon and vegetables/tofu into separate bowl and spooning broth over them the meal would have been more balanced. Possibly just stirring a bit would have been fine, but as I said, the bowl was quite full... so it would have been a delicate procedure.

Well, that's a review of my initial foray into the world of "Japanese food that is not sushi" in Boston/Cambridge. I'll update as I discover more.

photo used under a Creative Commons license by flickr user Jon Åslund