Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Monja at kaisemmonjamohejihanare, Tokyo.

For my first dinner in Tokyo on my recent visit, I arranged a group to go on quite a journey.  Our destination: monjayaki, off the beaten tourist path.
Monja Making.
It was a unique experience, certainly a success, although not necessarily something we'd want to do again.

So, what is monjayaki? (Or, monja, for short)?  It is sorta like okinomiyaki, but a runier style.  You cook it yourself (or have server help you), and you eat it off a little spatula.  It is served in basically only one area of Japan (the Kantō region), and, one street in Tokyo.

Like I said, unique.

The Street

The street that serves monja in Tokyo is located right near the Tsukishima station, actually quite accessible.  It is on "Moon Island, a man-made island.

This gets more fascinating right?
The Street.
The entire street is basically monja shops, about 70 in all.  There are a few other options, but for the most part, it is all monja, all small shops, with only a handful of seats.
Storefront.
How do you select one?  Yeah, this part is hard. They don't have many ratings or reviews from English speakers, as, well, not really a tourist thing.  The ratings I did see were all about the same.  Common advice I heard was to just pick that one that calls to you, or, when all else fails, the one with the lines.

We found one that had a bit of a wait, and all Japanese customers.  Seemed like a good choice, so we added our names to the wait list, and took a seat on the stools out front.  It was about a 20 minute wait.  There were plenty of other options with no wait at all, but, hey, this one looked legit.

(Side note: the bathroom here was amazing! Tiny, but fancy in the way that all Tokyo bathrooms are, and also stocked with things like q-tips!)

Cooking Monja

So, how does one actually cook monja, particularly when you have no idea what you are doing, and don't speak the language?  It really wasn't too hard, and the staff helped considerably.
Grill Top.
Each table is centered around a cooking surface.  The staff come light it as soon as you sit.  Group sizes are limited to 2-4, since there isn't more space around the grill, and you'll be eating directly from it.
Condiments.
On the side of the grill is everything needed for cooking various dishes.

They also serve okinomiyaki, so the okinomiyaki sauce (with paintbrush!) and bonito flakes are in the metal jars.  Assorted sauces (soy?), salts, and seasonings are in shakers on the side.
Bowl of ingredients.
Once you order, the server comes out promptly with a giant bowl of ingredients.

This one had spicy code roe (pink stuff on top) and rice cakes (white cubes), on top of all the standard ingredients (cabbage, batter).
Dumping it onto grill.
The server helped us out here, dumping the mochi and roe onto the grill first, on the corner.  He did this all with giant spatulas, as the only cooking tool.
Mixing and Chopping.
Then he dumped the cabbage layer onto the grill, and chopped it up, rapid fire.
Circle Action.
Once chopped up, he swirled it into a circle, made a well in the center, and dumped in the liquid from the bowl.
Mix-Ins.
After a while, the mix-ins get integrated.
Cooking Away!
That bubbles a bit, get swirled back around and mixed in, forming a large oval.  You can see the roe integrated now.

Once it cooks a tiny bit more, the server sprinkled on some green flakes (no idea what this was), and then told us how long to wait to start eating for each one.
Eating Tools.
To eat it, you eat right from the grill.  Each person has a tiny little spatula at their seats to use.

What happens next?  I'll get to that with the food review.

The Food & Drink

As I said, these shops specialize in monja, but they do offer a few other things.
English Menu!
Even though we were the only English speaking guests, they did have a English menu, for which we were grateful.

The menu has chilled appetizers like adamame, cold tofu, and seaweeds, but we didn't order these, nor see anyone else doing it either.  You could also get some a la carte items to grill yourselves, like squid, chicken, scallops, and more.  And, as I mentioned, a few styles of okonomiyaki and a couple noodle dishes, all of which would be cooked in front of you.

But the majority of the menu is the monja, with a few suggested combinations, or an a la carte menu.  We stuck to just monja, and went for one of their suggestions, and made one of our own.
Drink Menu.
Drinks included all sorts of sours, shochu, sake, coktails, and fruit wine, plus beer and soft drinks.  And highballs, which, seem to be a thing, as we found those many places.
Lychee Liqueur Sour. 480 yen.
I went for the lychee sour.  I still don't really know what it was, but, it was refreshing.  A bit sweet, a bit sour, mostly it reminded me of something like Zima (which, is quite popular in Japan).

Very refreshing inside the hot restaurant in front of the cooking surface.
Basic Monja (680 yen) + cheese (230 yen) + rice-cake (230 yen) + octopus (380 yen).
The first monja we went for was our custom creation.

I had read many monja recommendations that stressed that you MUST get the cheese and mochi, so, we did.  And I picked octopus as a seafood mix-in, since I like octopus.

So, back to the cooking and eating.  This is where we were left on our own.  The server told us to wait until the cheese melted, and then ... he left.
Eating It!
I grabbed chopsticks too, assuming they'd be necessary, but, they weren't.  You really just do use the little spatula.

Our first monja wasn't great, I'll be honest.

The octopus was very chewy.  I did like the mochi, but there were only 5 balls in the entire thing, and 4 of us.  The runny cabbage filled batter was ... boring?  But the real issue was the cheese.  There was soooooo much cheese.  It was ooey, gooey, runny, all good things.  And I like cheese.  But I didn't really like this cheese, and it totally overwhelmed everything.

It did get better as it cooked more, both the batter parts and the cheese parts, as I do adore crispy bits.  I was certainly the one scraping up all the edges.

So, interesting, yes, but none of us really liked this.
Mentaiko and Rice-Cake. 1480 yen.
Our second one was much better, the top selection on the menu.

It again had rice cakes, but also tons of mentaiko (spicy cod roe).  The server suggested cheese, but, since none of us liked the cheese, we left it out.  He again told us we should get it, but we still said no.  I'm glad we did.

This one was MUCH better.  Since there was no cheese, our instructions this time were to wait "1 minute".  We all agreed we liked it crispier, so we waited a bit longer.

The mochi was again good (but limited), I wonder if you can double order it?  The cod roe was actually a key ingredient, as the roe added little pops and crunches throughout.  It was also spicy, so there was flavor this time, and salty, so it was just far more flavorful.

Without the cheese taking over, we could also just taste more of the base ingredients.  The cabbage.  The green stuff.  I also added seasonings from the side, including a spicy furikake, that amped it all up.

Much more successful, but, while we all thought this was interesting, and certainly our favorite of the two, we aren't totally convinced that monja is something we want again.
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