I’m a stickler for the traditional in all cuisines, usually avoiding ‘fusion’. I like food made as it is in its country of origen. Mexican for Mexicans, Chinese for Chinese. If you got something good, don’t mess with it.
It was my step-mother, Yasuko (my dad’s third and final wife) who said it. I had inquired as to whether they ever put cream cheese in sushi in Japan. “What’s cream cheese?”, she asked, perplexed. When I explained that it’s the stuff they shmeer on bagels in New York, she recoiled in horror. “Never in Japan, NEVER!” she exclaimed. “The very IDEA!” Well, we’ll avoid most Japanese restaurants when she visits us here in the capital of inauthentic Philadelphia-stuffed sushis. I don’t like them either. You just can’t taste the other ingredients. Doesn’t work for me. As I’ve written before, there are several good and traditional cheese-less Nipponese nosheries around town. Recently two new venues have opened their doors, both presenting versions of Japanese cooking by Japanese chefs from opposite sides of the fusion spectrum.
C.O.M.E. Comida Casera Japonesa is a small place run by a transplanted group of cool young people from Japan. It’s a hip hole-in-the-wall that serves a quick, complete lunch. Small restaurants like this abound in Japan: like our ‘comida corrida’ joints, they cater to folks on the go who want lunch like mama made it. Such as a big bowl of noodles. Or a ‘setu’, a complete meal: miso soup, rice, a prepared dish and a couple of accompaniments like a salad or pickles. C.O.M.E. does a nice one. Catering to Latin custom, the soup is brought out first, although I like to ask for everything ‘de una vez’, Japanese style – courses in Asia are reserved for momentous occasions. A recent choice of sautéed calamari was done to perfection, lightly seared, augmented by a little garlic and ginger. Likewise the pork with eggplant was spicy, rather Chinese in style. Rice is of the sushi variety, sticky and filling. And the nice little salad is dressed with a sesame-miso sauce. For $75 pesos, including cool jasmine tea, this is a satisfying and healthful repast.
Décor is cheap and cheerful: polished cement floors, varnished plywood tables and mis-matched handmade bowls give warmth to the plain rectangular space. As they say in Japan; “Itadakimas”: ¡buen provecho!
C.O.M.E. (Cocina Original Muy Enternacional)(sic)
Open Monday-Saturday, 11-7 p.m.
In the safe, but culinarily sparce neighborhood of Del Valle, an unusual home has opened its doors to the public. Restaurante Bi & Shizo Lounge, situated in the former home of 20th century artist Federico Cantú is now a venue for a restaurant/bar lounge serving so-calledJapanese fusion food.
I usually take the word ‘fusion’ as a warning sign. The prefix ‘con’ can easily be read into it. But in this case I’ll allow for some cultural mixing. The owners of Bi are a fusion themselves: Mario, the host, is Mexican, and chef Eri Kato is Japanese. The tranquil, airy, modernist patio is sunny by day, atmospherically lit at night, and features a large grisaille painting by Cantú himself. It’s a pleasant, adult place. Music is soft – the owners like jazz. The menu offerings remind me of odd little dishes I’ve sampled in Tokyo bars. Small plates, usually based in Japanese tradition, have been given a creative tweak from the chef. An ensalada de hongos shitake con aderezo de yusu y ginger presents the sliced mushrooms in a fragrant dressing of ginger and yusu, an aromatic citrus juice–light and lovely. Or atún marinado al sake en salsa roja y fritura de verduras, seared sake-marinated fresh tuna augmented by a Mexican chili infusion and accompanied by crispy tempura-style vegetables. Odd was a sopa agedashi mozzarella. Uh oh, here comes the cheese. I was loath to order it but with much encouragement from the chef, I dared and it worked. This warm, velvety unassuming cheese soaks up the flavor of the very Nipponese broth – “Oi shi, deska”. What a surpise. Of course there are traditional, beautifully presented sushi rolls and tempura plates. Another oddity is a whole page of Spanish tapas: cheeses and hams. The owners explained that they want their place to attract a wide range of ages, not to be just another Condesa-style yuppie joint. “The older folks from the neighborhood just won’t touch the Japanese stuff, so this is for them”. Prices are reasonable, service friendly.If you find yourself around the Trade Center area and long for a respite from la locura, go.
Restaurant BI & Shizo Lounge
C/San Francisco 325 (3 blocks east of the Av. Insurgentes & the World Trade Center)
Colonia Del Valle
Open Tuesday-Thursday 10 a.m. – 11 p.m., Friday, Saturday until 10, Sunday until 9.