Anthony Bourdain can suck it! 道しるべ (Michi Shirube) is Tokyo's best kept secret
I travel to Japan at least 6 times a year (50 times in the last eight years alone). And if there are two things I love it's music and food. Women are definitely another supreme interest but I'm not an expert lady's man so this blog entry will tackle something other than music which I know quite a bit about and that is food, specifically: where the f*ck to eat if you only have one night in Tokyo.
If you're a gastronomist or foodie thinking about travelling to or having recently visited Tokyo chances are you've seen Anthony Bourdain's food excursions to Tokyo on No Reservations and Parts Unkown.
I love Tokyo. If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it. Most chefs I know would agree with me. For those with restless, curious minds, fascinated by layer upon layer of things, flavors, tastes and customs which we will never fully be able to understand, Tokyo is deliciously unknowable. I'm sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.
- Anthony Bourdain
Frankly I don't mean any disrespect towards Anthony Bourdain. I just wanted a title bold enough to catch people's attention. Anyone who considers Tokyo the best city in the world for food is cool in my books because that's how I feel about Tokyo's music scene.
On my recent trip to Japan, my friend Larry and his wife Keleng were transiting through Tokyo on a trip to Hong Kong. They were only in Tokyo for one night and they wanted me, Hiro and Midori to choose a restaurant that would blow their minds since they only had a few precious hours before having to fly to HK in the morning.
Larry, Keleng and I along with our mutual best friends Han and Bernard travelled to Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto in 2012. Larry et al are huge fans of Anthony Bourdain so we ended up eating at a few of Tony's recommended spots including Toriki and Sarashina-Hori.
To this day Larry still raves about the chicken sashimi & tataki we had at Toriki. And I agree that the chicken-centric meal we had there was probably the best I've ever had. Larry also LOVES sushi so Hiro and I contemplated reserving a spot at Sukiyabashi Jiro or any of the top rated Sushi Saito/Sawada/Mizutani/Sho.
Eating high end sushi in Tokyo is a foodgasmic experience but the snooty environment does not lend itself to a fun night out. Toriki has incredible food and a decent atmosphere with a jovial, spirited chef but in terms of ambiance NOTHING beats Michi Shirube . Coupled with mindblowingly delicious food Michi Shirube is my absolute favourite place to eat in Tokyo.
I first learned about the yakitori (grilled chicken skewer) restaurant Michi Shirube from my good friend Hiro (ex-manager of Akai Koen and MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS). He worked at EMI and all his friends at EMI LOVED Michi Shirube. They loved it so much that they vowed to keep its existence a secret. Why? Because there's only one Michi Shirube and it's a tiny and I mean tiny hole in the wall with 6 seats at the bar counter and seating for only 9-12 upstairs. The place is extremely difficult to find even if you're using Google Maps with GPS and every night before opening there is a line-up. The first six get a lucky seat at the bar while the rest have to cram in and eat/drink while standing unless they reserved a table upstairs. Oh and did I mention that Michi Shirube doesn't list their telephone number. You can only reserve a table if you've been there before and it helps to be a regular.
Secret telephone numbers and exclusivity reeks of haughty atmosphere and service, right? Well that assumption couldn't possibly be further from the truth. Michi Shirube is the most down to earth, vibrant and fun bar/restaurant I've ever been to anywhere in the world. In Toronto we have 416 Snack Bar and Guu that are indeed lively but obnoxiously loud due to the music at the former and waitstaff of the latter. In contrast the energy and ebullience at Michi Shirube is honest and sincere. Everyone is friendly, in a great mood and ready to party without making assholes of themselves.
Yoichi, the owner and chef is a supreme master at the grill and his talent at cooking is only matched by his great sense of humour and ability to make all customers feel at ease. He has a profoundly dirty sense of humour but can read the atmosphere and refrain from making jokes that are too offensive. I have no idea where he gets his supply of chicken but it tastes better than 99% of the yakitori places elsewhere in Tokyo especially when factoring price. There are places in Tokyo that serve an even higher quality of chicken such as Torishiki in Meguro and not even Michi Shirube can beat Torishiki in terms of taste but the difference is marginal and Michi Shirube completely owns Torishiki in terms of atmosphere.
Nobu is Yoichi's right hand man. Nobu is responsible for cooking all the delicious non-yakitori items on the menu. In fact a couple of patrons who frequent Michi Shirube almost every night feel the tastiest item on the menu isn't the liver, heart or any of the yakitori but it's Nobu's famous tamagoyaki (omelette).
Well those guys are in the minority because Nobu's tamagoyaki does kick serious ass but it's nowhere near as mouthwatering as Yoichi's yakitori:
If I had to choose one item on the menu to showcase it would be the liver:
Why the liver? Because I hate liver. It normally tastes like metallic rot. Chicken liver is usually milder than beef liver to begin with but I've had chicken liver at izakayas and yakitori places before that left a nasty, pungent aftertaste. But the liver at Michi Shirube is… heavenly. The texture is smooth to the point of melting in your mouth and the distinctive liver taste is gentle with only the faintest hint of iron. The fact that Yoichi can take a food I detest and not only make it bearable but delicious is the work of genius. I wonder want he can do with natto, durian and stinky tofu?
warning: the liver is by far the most popular item and sells out EXTREMELY fast. How fast? We had a reservation for 8pm and ordered one round of livers for three people. We liked it so much we tried ordering it again at 840pm and they were already sold out. Whaaaaaaat?!
But if you can't stand the taste of liver no matter how mild you might want to try something more orthodox in which case I recommend the もも (momo), chicken thigh:
Juicy, crispy, smoky to the point of perfection.
I mentioned I don't like the taste of liver. In fact I'm generally not a fan of offal. In Japan, the term for offal is ホルモン (horumon = hormone) since many items that make up offal are glands such as the pancreas, thyroid, liver, thymus etc. One type of offal I was never really a big fan of is heart. Who the hell would want to eat another animal's heart? Even as carnivores some lines shouldn't be crossed. I mean it's one thing to derive nourishment from an animal's skeletal muscle but to eat it's heart is like spitting on the sanctity of life. So having said that, holy shit does the chicken heart ever taste damn good at Michi Shirube:
They don't serve chicken sashimi at Michi Shirube like they do at Toriki or Fuku. But they do serve sasami which is lightly seared chicken tenderloin and they dress it with a bit of yuzu wasabi and it tastes fantastic:
Seseri which consists of fatty neck muscle is a prized yakitori part since each chicken produces only a small amount. It's fairly tasty and Yoichi grills it to perfection:
Any vegetarian readers must hate my guts at this point but my next recommended menu item should make you happy because one of the tastiest items bar none at Michi Shirube is the shiitake mushroom:
I can't even begin to describe how sublime this unassuming fungal specimen tastes. I believe its prepared by simmering the shiitake in butter, mirin, a touch of soy sauce and sake because after you discover how heavenly the shiitake tastes you immediately sip up the residual broth left on the tray and that's what it tasted like to me. The shiitake in whatever sake-based concoction its cooked in tastes like pure magic. Otherworldly. Something so tasty shouldn't even be possible. If someone asked you to share a piece of your shiitake you would tell him/her to go f*ck themselves because it's too good to share even with loved ones.
The bonjiri (chicken tail), tebasaki (wing), and tsukune (chicken meatball) are also prime choices for consumption at Michi Shirube.
In Japan (and many other countries) it's common to finish off your meal with one last carb-based dish. The generic term for this last 'dish' is 'しめ' (shime = to close or to finish) and it's usually a rice or noodle based dish. At Michi Shirube, even though it's not on the menu, if you're lucky you can ask Nobu to hook you up with a plate of curry on rice chock full of yakitori parts:
When you taste your first spoonful your initial reaction might be meh.. it's like the Japanese style curry from home or at Yoshinoya… that's just for the first 2-3 seconds… then a second wave of flavour hits and you get a kick of spiciness… DAMN, soooo good… and then a final wave of robust umami and O-face… you just came in your pants. And that's just the curry sauce we're taking about. I haven't even described how much the yakitori meat exponentially enhances the texture and flavour. Scroll back up and look up at those mouth watering yakitori skewers. While you won't be getting liver or heart there is some prime, tender deliciously juicy chicken meat saturating and blissfully enhancing the savouriness of one of the best bowls of curry you can get anywhere in Japan. Unfortunately they don't make the curry everyday and like I said it's not even on the menu.
However, what is on the menu for 'shi-me' is '油そば' (abura soba). Abura soba is a style of ramen where there is no soup, instead the noodles sit in a marinade of oil and fat. This dish will send your cholesterol levels skyrocketing but the taste is unequivocally worth it. I've never actually had a bowl yet. Hiro, Midori and I chose to have the curry but then we saw the bowl of abura soba on the table next to us and we thought "shiiiiiiiet. That looks f*cking amazing!" The people at the table next to us saw us eyeing the abura soba and insisted we try a sample. We declined and said we would just order it ourselves. But they said you HAVE to try it and we said "we believe you! we don't need to try it. We're going to order it right now." (even though we already had curry rice in front of us). But the girl to my left who looked like a model (but was actually a nurse) took the bowl of abura soba and handed it to me saying "I insist. Please try some." She was one of the cutest girls I've met in my life. As if I could say no, so I took my chopsticks and grabbed a small sample. It was absolutely delicious. We ordered our own bowl of abura soba but it turns out they had already sold out and couldn't make any more. Doh! But to tell you the truth, the curry is way better! Although I only had a tiny sample of abura soba and my verdict isn't final until next time.
Michi Shirube combines very high quality, supremely delicious food at a bargain (~$20 per person for the food; extra for the drinks but they're well priced too). But it's the ambiance that really sets this place apart.
*Not finished yet* Post to be continued but I wanted to get what I have up for now because my next post has to do with picking the final band for NMFT6 and it's an important one. Will finish this post on Michi Shirube probably in the next 2 days.