Rakuichi Horumon In The Time Of Corona

Rakuichi Horumon In The Time Of Corona

In the beginning of June, after 3 months of lock-down, I was bicycling, in a web of melancholy,  around the Shimo-Akatsuki train station.  In a narrow alleyway, tucked in between some non-descript buildings, I saw Paris.  Or rather a belle epoque themed cafe whose interior glowed with warm, art nouveau lighting whose patio was bedecked with flowers and Perrier umbrellas.   Across the narrow alleyway, there was a lone table with two chairs.  In the midst of a pandemic, it looked to be possibly the safest place to enjoy a much-missed drink outside of my home.  I sat down at the lonely table and the genteel owner came out to take my order.  He promptly brought me a perfectly poured beer in a chilled glass.  I raised it to my lips, the head creamy, the liquid cold and wonderful.  The owner returned with a small plate of smoked chicken and sliced cornichons. “Very delicious,” He told me. “Good with beer.”  My eyes got a touch watery and I had to hold back a wave of tears. I wanted to hug him because the kindness of a perfectly poured beer and a little free chicken made me see a thin ray of light peeking out between all the dead bodies and chaos and sadness of the previous months. Things were not all falling apart.  The Tokyo I loved — the small, the intimate, the eccentric, the dirty — was going to survive.

It is now mid-July and Tokyo has, more or less, returned to pre-pandemic life.  My kids are back in school.  Restaurants and bars are open.  Pachinko parlors echo with loud music and the crash of small, metallic balls. People are getting back to work.  Trains are crowded.  Be it masks, basic hygiene, a mindful society, Tokyo, one of the world’s most crowded cities with the most aged population has only recorded about 325 deaths from Covid 19.  325 deaths out of a population of more than 30 million people.  Over the last week or so, the number of infections has been growing and it could all spiral out-of-control at any moment; however, in some internal way, the present moment feels relatively safe.

When it came to food during the lockdown, we did not suffer.  With no school and no work, meals took on exaggerated importance. My expanded waistline attests to that.  However, I really, really missed eating out.  I missed my solo lunches.  I missed yakitori with friends, ramen with my son, izakaya meals with numerous lemon sours. But, the restaurant food I kept thinking about and lusting for was Yakiniku and Horumon (Japanese BBQ).  It was a bit of an odd thing to obsess over, as you can quite easily grill some meat at home. Nonetheless, on my long-roaming pandemic bike rides, I found myself taking note of a number of Yakiniku restaurants that I passed by; I imagined plates of finely marbled kalbi, puffy stacks of tepu (colon), thinly sliced tongue; the sound of flesh sizzling on the grill; smoke, fragrant with caramelizing sugars, curling up into the exhaust fans.   Like everyone the world over,  the past couple months have been rough on my family. So, on a day that felt right, we decided to break our months-long home quarantine and go out to a restaurant to eat Yakiniku.  My family and I discussed options, my son had his eye on an “all you can eat” BBQ chain restaurant.  All you can eat sounds like a good concept when you have a very hungry teenager in tow, but when you break down the actual economics it all starts to fall apart, especially when you factor in the low-quality of most chains.  With some prodding on my part, we settled on Rakuichi Horumon, a restaurant I had long wanted to try.  I first spotted it years ago when I first arrived in Japan.  We were on our bikes, following my wife’s friends en route to a Yakiniku meal of their choosing.  My heart sank as we pedaled by it — “Why aren’t we eating there?” I shouted to my wife.  We ended up about two blocks away at a huge BBQ chain and I ate my whole mediocre meal wishing we had gone to Rakuichi.  It was time to remedy that bad food memory.

Rakuichi is a classic of the form — it is smokey; seating is on the floor at low tables with a built-in braziers filled with glowing bitochan charcoal.  Handwritten signs line the walls advertising drink and food specials.  Restaurants have suffered in Tokyo; on a Friday night Rakuichi should have been packed.  As it were, two construction workers were almost supine as they drank a bottle of Shochu and ordered one more.  In the opposite room, a family with teenaged daughters kept up a raucous parade of laughter and shouts.  A couple on a date, were extremely solicitous, grilling each other’s meat, pouring each other’s drink and conversing in voices barely above a whisper.   We went full in, ordering tongue, kalbi, vegetables, cold noodles, pork belly, hearts and tepu.  The tongue came thinly sliced and covered with finely diced green onion.  The waiters demonstrated how to grill it, folding it over so one side was a bit charred, the other steamed from the moisture of the onions.  The kalbi, lightly marinated and seasoned, was lusciously marbleized Wagyu which needed just moments over the coals to become meltingly rich and tender.   Each dish was presented beautifully, served with an array of sauces — lemon for some things, a spicy BBQ sauce for others, a bit of red miso for the next.  A tinfoil cup of sesame oil sat on the grill slowly frying a handful of whole garlic cloves to a buttery deliciousness.  The staff, two young guys in their mid-20s, kept everything moving, filling up water glasses, bringing more beer, changing the grill when it got too smoky, offering suggestions on specials.  As I wrapped up a piece of pork belly with slivered negi and lifted it to my mouth, I had a feeling of unbelievable happiness to be eating, with my family, at Rakuichi.  True, we could have gone to a butcher, ordered all these things (for cheaper!) and sat at home having a similar meal.  But the reality is that it would not be similar at all.  A good Yakiniku restaurant like Rakuichi represents a vast array of subtle skills: pristine butchering, immaculate sourcing of ingredients, incredible knifework with the garnishes, a deft hand with seasoning.  And what was in the marinade that coaxed every inch of flavor out of those slices of kalbi?  Beyond the food itself, what joy it was to just BE in a restaurant, to be gently teased by the waiter for my pronunciation of “Tepu”;  to hear the buzzing voices of people happy to be in each other’s company; to note the loosening inhibitions of the two customers on a date.   And fuck!  I looked at my family —  my beautiful wife, my delicious daughter, my son who is now so big that I can’t imagine how I could have ever held him like a tiny football as I imitated the Heisman Award — and thought oh my God how lucky we are.  We made it through months of the worst sadness and fear as friends and family died and got sick and we worried about our own health and wellbeing and felt as if the gods of misfortune and bad luck had turned their eyes on us.    But, now here we were enveloped in sweet smoke, our breath garlicky, our stomachs full, our fingers sticky and ever so grateful.

 

 

 

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