sushi for breakfast

lanterns at hozen-ji temple

lanterns at hozen-ji temple

Did you know that Osaka has more Michelin stars than Paris? And that it is the birthplace of conveyor-belt sushi and ramen? From the high end to the low end, Osaka has a lot to offer in the culinary sense.

Why am I talking about Osaka? After a couple of painful last-minute changes of itinerary, my husband and I decided to start our Asian trip in this southern Japanese city at the heart of the densely-populated Kansai region. It’s not the most obvious first stop for a Japan virgin, but, with the sudden realization that Tokyo and Mount Fuji would have to wait for the next trip, I decided to embrace this alternate destination and all it had to offer. Osaka, I figured, was still better than no Japan at all.

Osaka

But first, let’s try to set the scene: Osaka is far from being the most picturesque part of Japan, which is partly explained by the density of its population and the need to optimize the use of space. Also, a large part of the city was bombed during World War II and quickly rebuilt after the war to accommodate the population. But the city carries a strong identity and a rich and dynamic culture, shaped by shintoist and buddhist traditions as well as by an amazing capacity to reinvent itself.

We stayed in the flamboyant Dotonbori district, a nightlife hub with its shops, restaurants and Pachinko parlors. It reminded me of Times Square, but bigger, louder and tackier (if that’s even possible). The streets are saturated with neon signs and bring massive waves of young people ready to party, shop and gamble. But sometimes, even in the middle of the bustle, you make a detour onto a quieter street to find tucked away amid the chaos a little shrine, a gem of the past that makes you forget about the ambient confusion and the noise of the city.

In such an overwhelming urban area, the need to escape to calmer places was strong, but unfortunately, parks and open spaces were rare. We managed to find some quiet on the grounds of Osaka Castle and at the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan, Shitennoji. And we found unexpected respite at Namba Parks, a unique 8-level rooftop park.

Shitennoji

Shitennoji

‘Kuiadore’: Eat until you drop…

Every meal we had in Osaka was amazing, from the typical Japanese breakfast at our hotel (rice pudding, grilled fish, miso soup, tofu, fermented soy beans…) to the bowl of ramen enjoyed in a small eatery in a train station, or the delicious okonomiyaki we tried at a popular restaurant in Dotonbori.

Okonomiyaki

The Japanese word kuiadore means “to ruin oneself with extravagance in food” and is part of a traditional proverb that says: “Dress (in kimonos) until you drop in Kyoto, eat until you drop in Osaka”. And that was all the permission we needed to stuff ourselves.

Osaka is known for its food, and if there’s one thing you should absolutely try while you are there, it’s the local street food specialty takoyaki, or fried octopus balls. It’s surprisingly good: crispy on the outside with a gooey wheat flour-based batter made with diced octopus, green onions and spices inside. It is served piping hot, covered with ponzu (soy sauce with dashi and vinegar) and dried bonito flakes. The way they make it in a cast-iron griddle with half-spherical molds is fascinating: the takoyaki are furiously flipped with a pick so that the uncooked batter is at the base of the rounded cavity where it is cooked at a very high temperature. There seem to be a couple of places in Seattle where I can find takoyaki, and I can’t wait to try them!

Takoyaki

Japan is matcha paradise

For all the cooks out there, if there is one thing I would recommend bringing back from Japan, it’s matcha powder. I love baking with it, but its price here in the States makes it a luxury good that I try to use sparingly and end up not using as often as I would like. The matcha powder I found in Japan is 7 to 10 times cheaper than what I’ve seen in the States. 40g for less than 4 dollars: Where can you find a better price?

Matcha goodness

Matcha goodness (warabi mochi)

As a matcha fan, each time I spotted a green baked good or sweet you can be sure that I tried it: matcha and chocolate cake, matcha mochi filled with red bean paste (my favorite!), matcha pudding, matcha jelly and… matcha Kit Kats and Oreos! To my husband’s consternation, I tried everything, happy to discover new flavor palettes. What I love about Japanese pastries is that they’re not overly sweet and they use ingredients that are largely unfamiliar to my Western palate. Mochi, for example, is made with glutinous rice flour and filled with jelly, paste or ice cream; warabimochi, a jelly dessert, is rolled in soybean flour; and dorayaki, a sort of thick pancake, is filled with red bean paste…

Delicious dorayaki

Everything is perfectly designed and beautiful to look at, almost too beautiful to eat. And if you go to a nice bakery, they will pack it with thick, colorful paper, the kind you only use for gifts. That’s when the pleasure of the palate meets the pleasure of the eyes…

Matcha chocolate cake

I think I’ve never seen food so colourful and strangely shaped, and I’ll certainly have a closer look at Japanese baking recipes in the future.

Japanese sweets

Sushi expedition at the fish market

Without a doubt the culinary highlight of our stay, Endo Sushi is a small restaurant located in the city fish market where the sushi is made with the day’s freshest produce and sold at an affordable price. Each 5-piece maze (set) cost about 1,000 yen (less than $10). The cuts were generous, and the quantity of rice was on the small side (which I personally prefer, since it’s all about the fish). A nice surprise is that you don’t dip your nigiri into the soy sauce but rather apply it with a brush. This makes it easier to get the soy on the fish instead of the rice.

Endo sushi

Endo is a bit off the beaten path, but with the aid of Google Maps and this helpful blog post (thank you, dear fellow blogger!), you won’t have any trouble finding it. The place is small, and I’ve read that its gets rather busy around lunch time. The good thing is that it opens at 5 a.m., in keeping with its fish-market location. Since we were still struggling with jetlag (Seattle being 16 hours behind), we had no trouble visiting for breakfast. Yes, sushi makes great breakfast food. Another must on the menu: the clam miso soup, which was rich and wonderfully tasty.

The staff were nice and made an extra effort to commmunicate with us. The sushi master, who must be in his seventies, seemed to come right out of one of those Japanese anime cartoons from the 1980’s, with his rounded white-framed glasses and his traditional wooden platform shoes. He stayed planted on his chair the whole time, checking severely the movements of his staff (and nodding off occasionally…), reminding us a bit of the subject of the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“. When he offered us a smile at the end of our meal, amused by our obvious satisfaction, I felt like I’d been inducted into a secret society of sushi connoisseurs.

Unique drinking experience at Bar Core

This might be the smallest bar in Osaka and among the smallest in the world: There are no seats, and only seven or eight people can comfortably stand, including the bartender. And if you don’t drink whisky, you won’t be drinking here.

Bar Core in Osaka

It takes a bit of courage to enter, and I would recommend avoiding it if you have claustrophobic tendencies. The space is so small and narrow that private conversations are almost impossible, or at least impolite. Try to imagine us, with our 10 words of Japanese, sidling up to the bar on a Sunday night: Keep in mind that once you step through the door, it’s already too late to change your mind. When we entered, conversation ceased and 3 pairs of eyes glanced warily in our direction; stepping back would have been more awkward than staying. On the other hand, knowing that this place has been featured in The New York Times’ “36 hours” series, we figured the bartender must be used to greeting unwitting foreign tourists who, like us, stumble in and try to quickly assess whether to stay or flee. We stayed.

Following the NYT recomendation, my husband ordered a glass of Hibiki, an intense, award-winnning 17-year-old blend. I decided to go for something else and tried to explain it to the bartender, in a combination of English and signs. One of the two clients came to my rescue and pointed at what he was drinking: A 12-year-old single malt that happened to be very smooth. I mumbled a thank you in Japanese and tried to disappear into my drink. Fortunately, the other client had studied a little bit of English in high school and engaged in conversation with us. And, one thing leading to another, and with the alcohol helping, we ended singing some songs, in French, by Michel Polnareff, famous in France and in Japan too, apparently. This client happened to have all his songs in her iPod.

Shop at Takashimaya

If you want to buy just about anything — from traditional hand-held fans and origami paper to expansive clothing and jewelry — Takashimaya is your temple! We found ourselves inexplicably drawn to this sprawling department store, more than necessary…

Making dorayaki

My favorite part? The basement food court, which reminded me of the one at Harrods. A perfect place to take a culinary tour of all the Japanese specialties: yakitori, tempura, sushi, ramen, mochi… Buy a few items for your lunch and go eat them at the top of Namba Parks, as we did, for some relative peace and quiet in the middle of the urban craze.

Tempura at Takashimaya food court

Traveling in Japan can sometimes be intimidating, but don’t forget that when it comes to food, it’s actually pretty easy. Lots of places have window displays with plastic food: Just point at what you want to order and you’ll be served. Easy!

Next stop: Hong Kong. Stay tuned!

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seeking atmosphere in new orleans

It’s not that the story of my tipsy eating marathon in New Orleans wasn’t interesting, but it offers an incomplete picture of the fantastic things that this city has to offer. That’s why I thought it would only be fair to share some more sober impressions and explain what makes the atmosphere there so unique.

Saint Louis

Do you speak creole? …or cajun?

New Orleans has a strong, singular personality. The product of this cultural mélange is greater than the sum of its parts (French, Spanish, African and Caribbean) and gives the city its dazzling and vibrant creole identity — whether it’s in the food, the music, the architecture or the language. Not to be confused with Cajun French, derived from the Acadian French as it was spoken in the colony of Acadia. It makes for a rich and diverse linguistic landscape. And as a French person, I always enjoy finding French influences in the colorful creole and cajun wordings, even though the relation may be sometimes far fetched. My favorite? Fais deaux deaux or fais do-do, the name of a Cajun dance party derived from the French children’s lullaby fais dodododo is a shortening of dormir, the word for sleeping. New Orleans is the city of fusions!

Saints

Don’t stick to the Quarter!

As easy and tempting as it might be to wander endlessly the streets of the French Quarter, there is much more to see without even having to go far. Like most people, I happen to enjoy the Quarter craze, but only for a while. If you get tired of the hordes of tourists staggering from bar to bar on Bourbon Street but don’t want to escape the party scene altogether, abandon the noise of the Quarter and cross Esplanade to get to the Faubourg Marigny. You can start breathing again… Some of the city’s best bars and music venues are waiting for you, notably on Frenchmen Street.

And if you’re a little bit more adventurous, push it slightly further downriver, until you arrive in the Bywater, a rakish and gritty waterside neighborhood that’s more recently acquired an artsy and bohemian vibe.

entree des artistes

I first discovered Bywater a year ago, the day after my wedding, on a hot afternoon, when I was looking for a way to escape the ambient craze, and I immediately fell in love with the washed-out look of the creole cottages, the sleepy streets and the nostalgia that lingers in the air, making it so present and unreal at the same time.

Clouet street

What struck me while we were walking through Bywater is the sentiment of complete abandonment. The place was practically empty. It was nap time but I would not have been surprised if people were in fact watching us, the intruders, through their blinds.

house

house2

Fading colors, bright colors. Everywhere you’re reminded of how beautiful and tragic, cheerful and fatalistic, the city is. Doomed by the elements but always rebuilt, The City That Care Forgot is a unique jewel.

Lose track of time

The pace is different in New Orleans, more laid-back, to the point that waiting has become a religion, whether it’s for food, the bus or the tram. It will get there when it gets there! The inner neighborhoods are human-scale, and the air smells like honeysuckle and jasmine (except in the French Quarter where it smells like fried food and alcohol). I love that this city is so full of contradictions.

house3

house4

Cats. Lots of cats. It made me think of the Town of Cats featured in Murakami’s novel 1Q84. New Orleans is the city of cats, and you don’t know what sort of tricks they’re planning behind their sleepy eyes. Beware of the cats!

cat

two cats

For a ride through New Orleans history, hop on the iconic St. Charles streetcar. It provides a unique and cheap way to admire the beautiful oaks that line the avenue and enjoy the endless architectural variety of the city — from colonial houses with wrought-iron plantation balconies in the Garden District to Greek revival mansions and typical Victorian houses further uptown.

Jazz it up at Snug Harbor

In New Orleans, live music pulsates everywhere. Inside, outside, in the streets and restaurants, whether you want it or not. But mostly you want it!

instruments

people dancing

Looking for the essential jazz club? Snug Harbor is your place. Don’t expect anything but the best musicians in the city. Ellis Marsalis, the legendary pianist, usually plays on Fridays. I’m not a jazz specialist, but I sincerely enjoyed his show.

Snug Harbor

Grab a drink, grab a seat and enjoy the music that softly washes over that dim and cozy place.

Cruise the Mississippi River on the Natchez

The Mississippi River is a key element in the history and legend of New Orleans, so if you visit the city don’t forget to pay your tribute to it. And what better way than by taking a cruise on the last real steamboat still navigating the Mississippi, with calliope music, live Dixieland jazz and tasty southern food?

Boat

My husband and I got married on the Natchez and decided to celebrate our first anniversary by taking the cruise once again. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much from the first one. It’s true that I had many other things in mind. (Did I talk to everybody? Where did my plate go? And my glass? WHERE IS MY GLASS?) But this year I was able to relax completely and enjoy the scenery.

Natchez

Natchez2

What I mostly like about New Orleans is that although it’s an American city, it looks like no other place in the U.S. It feels foreign, almost European, which makes it difficult to understand but fascinating to observe. It’s a place where getting lost is almost obligatory, and if you’re like me, you’ll be glad you did.

currently crushing on… the ombré effect

flower bannerI am not a trend setter. In fact, by the time I’ve managed to clamber onto the wagon, everyone else has bailed. I’m left in the dust only to see them ride off, whooshing past me, waving from the newer, sexier wagon. Sigh.

When the ombré trend started I was completely uninterested. I don’t fuss with my hair and when it comes to fashion I’m conservative and wear mostly black. And I certainly don’t wear shades that fade from one color to another. It’s not symmetrical. But slowly ombré has managed to creep it’s way into everything… cakes, nails, shoes… everywhere but into my closet.

Flash back to about a month ago when I was walking with my dog, Lucille, and came face to flower (it’s really tall) with a fire poker or torch lily.

fire poker

It was bright and cheerful so I snapped a picture and for about a week and a half, I specifically routed our daily afternoon walks by the patch of fire pokers. I admired their lovely colors, gently flowing from soft pale yellow to orange to almost a burnt red. I had to admit it to myself: I, naysayer of ombré, was totally agog for this nature produced ombré flower.

So I set out to do what anyone who is passionate about flowers would do. I scouted the local flower shops to create an ombré inspired centerpiece. I bounced between four different flower shops, took pictures and returned home to review the flowers and piece together the ombré effect. Initially, I wanted to transition from the faintest cream to the loveliest spring green but I couldn’t find the right flowers/greenery. The color trends at the local shops were purples and pinks. How typical, right? I was slightly disappointed but reasoned with myself that inspiration can not be forced. Putting my disappointment aside I set off to the market to pick up ingredients for the evening dinner and stumbled across these little gems…

end of hueThey were perfect! Just the right hue of deep purple to complement an ombré of pinks or purples and they were anything but the norm. Feeling renewed joy in my project I practically ran to the flower shops the following day and rounded up a glorious assortment of flowers.

Here is what I ended up with: ranunculus (with the just a flirt of color), fancy liliac, snap dragon, stock, allium globemaster, liliac, alstromeria, and deep purple baby artichokes.

in a row

Prep containers. Start snipping stems. Test height as you go.

Work

Sometimes the pictures say it all…

table ombre

flowers in caddy

Bonus on the containers: They are actually part of a wine cup caddy set. When you are not displaying fabulous flowers you can pack a picnic with a bottle of wine and tote this marvelous drinker set. I bought mine at Butter Home.

ombre in grass

As I write this post my original inspiration is fading away until next season… the patch of fire pokers is drying up and it’s looking a bit blah. I miss it already.fire poker end season

Surprisingly, while I was (shopping but not really shopping) on the J.Crew website, I noticed they have an ombré cashmere sweater that you can pre-order… so maybe the ombré trend isn’t as fleeting as I originally thought.

Does that mean that ombré will soon be in my closet? Likely not. But I’m thrilled to have it on my kitchen table as a centerpiece. So, what’s next for the oh-so-trendy? I hear cropped shirts are all the rage (again). But that is so not happening. Maybe I’ll rock a high-low!

Have a fabulously trendy weekend and keep on crushing on! XXOO, Em