Drinking in the Laundromat. Shiokara in the rain.
By Chef Lippe.
Once a year I arrived in Vancouver for my seasonal model scouting of western Canada. It included the city as well as surrounding areas including Victoria and Nanaimo in Vancouver Island. I have always liked Vancouver. Despite its rainy weather. People are nice, girls are fun and there was at the time, a surge of microbreweries producing some serious ales and stouts. Can you ask any more from a working trip?
As Vancouver was my stopover from Toronto and the modeling convention there, I arrived with a suitcase full of dirty stuff. A couple of blocks from the hotel, there was an unpretentious glass front window coin-operated laundromat I used. My luggage consisted of thirty-some pieces of clothing made up of identical black Polo shirts, black Dockers pants, black socks. If you have ever watched the detective series “Monk” you will understand my logic. Everything in the suitcase matched everything else, and it guaranteed me the same look at all times, plus, black takes a long time to show dirt. All and all about four machine loads for a full wash. The laundromat was an unimpressive and uneventful large rectangular room lined with machines, plastic chair rows, soap vending machines, and suds smells lingering in the air. Until you stepped through the door at the far end wall.
As you entered the room you were transported to another era. A full-blown prohibition-style Martini bar greeted you with open arms. Plush carpet, wallpaper, polished mahogany bar counter, small round tables all under sporadic but strategically placed art deco tulip lamps. It was Lisa’s Laundromat Martini Lounge!
If you did not know it was there, you would never find it. No advertising or signage on the street or even inside the laundromat. Frequented by bartenders and wait staff from nearby bars restaurants and hotels, everybody seemed to know everybody, as Lisa diligently operated the place from behind the bar churning cocktail after cocktail. Lisa was a single mom, separated from her abusive husband. Her dad owned the laundromat, and let her have the back room, that she converted into her Martini Lounge. Nice lady as nice can get, she was always laughing and joking around, carrot dyed hair, nose, and ear piercings and heavy black eye make up.
We had my laundry load all timed up. As soon as I walked through the door, she popped me a Bombay Sapphire and Ruby Red grapefruit juice on ice in a tall pint beer glass. By the time the second round was gone my stuff was all clean and dry.
About three or four blocks north of the hotel, atop a steeply inclined slope was Sakura an authentic Japanese restaurant where I went to have breakfast and sometimes dinner. What I mean by “authentic” is that it was owned and operated by a Japanese family. Working for a Japanese company, many times when traveling with Takashi Kuroki the Agency’s owner, I had to find Japanese restaurants in the city we were because western food was very hard on his system.
From these trips, I learned some facts about Japanese restaurants. Some are owned by Koreans, some by Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and many times they are owned by westerners. Only a fraction of all Japanese restaurants are owned by Nihonjin 日本人 (Japanese). If you want to know if the restaurant you are going to is an authentic Japanese, there are telltale signs right on the menu. Items most likely only to be available in a Japanese outfit and not in a non-Japanese are Shiokara, Chawanmushi, Shishamo, and Nattō.
Ika no Shiokara 塩辛 is a “chinmi” or rare taste dish. It consists of fermented salted raw squid intestines. Yeah I know it does not sound very appetizing, actually, it is a very funky dish, somewhat of an acquired taste, to the uninitiated it might taste like sucking a rusty nail. The restaurant may not have this dish on the menu but if the restaurant is run by Japanese, they will know what you are talking about. Everybody else will have no clue.
Chawanmushi 茶碗蒸しliterally steamed cup is a savory egg custard steamed in a rice cup. Prepared with egg and “dashi” or basic Japanese fish stock, is not as simple as it first appears. In fact, its difficulty lies in the careful timing and temperature of the steaming process. Here is how you know Chawanmushi is done to perfection. The custard has traditionally a “surprise” right in the middle. Sometimes it is a shrimp, sometimes a mushroom. Whatever it is, it has to be standing perfectly upright in the curd. It can not be lying down or leaning at an angle. The custard must be soft and delicate, almost watery, not solid and dry. I have eaten masterful Chawanmushi. It is a unique experience.
Shishamo 柳葉魚 “willow leaf fish” is a type of smelt from Hokkaido. It is served grilled or fried, my preference is "no-shio" or simply salted, best when carrying roe, called "Masago" and enjoyed with a cold beer. Versions grilled with Shoyu (soy sauce) and Miso are popular as well. Masago 真砂 is the tiny orange-colored roe used in sushi.
Nattō 納豆 Nattō are small soybeans fermented using Bacillus subtilis known as nattō-kin in Japanese. I, like many Japanese, prefer them for breakfast. Nattō has a slimy gooey sticky texture, a strong pungent smell (My wife says it smells like a week old garbage inside a garbage can), and a powerful taste produce strands of fermented paste that adhere to chopsticks. I eat them over “Gohan” ご飯 or steamed rice, with a couple of raw quail eggs on top.
But back to Sakura. My breakfast there consisted of a bowl of “Sumashijiru” or clear broth, a piece of “shake shioyaki” or salmon grilled on coals simply salted and nattō over rice with quail eggs on top. Occasionally, when I went for dinner, I would find two people whom I became very much endeared with, and we would enjoy eating and drinking and drinking some more. He was an architect, she was a stripper. She worked the pole in the club next door to the restaurant. She was a force of nature, he was a sweet calm soul, they were a match made in heaven, sometimes, at the end of the night, with our bodies full of sake and our souls full of magic, we would wonder arm in arm down the street under the falling Vancouver drizzle to my hotel and spend the night. I liked my trips to Vancouver very much.
A last note before leaving town, I made it a point to go to the fisherman’s wharf on Granville Island and buy a couple of live lobsters. I overnighted them to Tokyo, so my boss could gift them to his lover. Live lobsters were not readily available in Tokyo at the time so it was a very exotic delicacy. Then I was gone once more, airport-bound to my next destination.