Thursday, May 5, 2011

BEST OF PBIHT: Tokyo Tomato - Part III

continued from Tokyo Tomato Part II


The Oak Door. To my left the dim lit restaurant. High ceilings, wide chairs. Straight ahead there was an on open kitchen where you could watch an international staff fire up your obscenely priced slab of beef. To my right was the bar area, where the two hostesses, like "Catch Me If You Can" flight attendants from a different era (or rather like Japanese flight attendants of this era, female, stunningly beautiful, perfectly polite, slightly disturbingly too perfect), quickly led me, still very much in my hiking shoes. I'd told them why I was there, who I was there to meet. Still they moved me quickly away from the entrance.

I tried to hide my knapsack by my stool and quickly took out my pen and notebook, as if these were a kind of proof. A bartender asked if I wanted anything. I looked at the prices, said I was OK. The bartender ignored me after that and went on mixing drinks for actual customers, stirring in expert fashion, rapid yet soft upward motions - maximum mixability, zero spillage.

When Franz finally came he looked all the more official wearing the tall, white chef’s hat to match his coat. He wasn’t unfriendly but he didn’t sit. It worried me that he didn’t. It worried me more when he asked me who I was and what my credentials were. Had I even contacted the hotel’s PR people? Franz asked, realizing that if I was indeed any sort of professional writer I’d have known that was the place to start. Did I know, he said, that he couldn’t say much unless I went through the proper channels? I understood completely. I was a fake. He was a busy man. ‘If you could kindly leave the restaurant, sir, that would be much appreciated’, would come next. Except that it didn’t. He didn’t chill to my inexperience or throw me out of the bar. Instead he asked what I’d like to drink.

To drink? Mojito flashed through my mind. Then it was scotch, scotch, scotch like a ticker tape across my brain. But he was such a nice guy. I felt a bastard trying to weasel my way into fancy free drinks that cost upwards of $15. So I said beer. (It cost $10.)

And I wasn’t a total bastard. I really did love great food and great hotels. I had the notebook because there had always been the writer dream and maybe he saw that in me, and maybe he was just a hell of a nice guy helping a kid who was closer to thirty than twenty but still had no idea what he was doing or how he was going to get there.

I started to ask about how he got his start, how he had made it so far, where he came from. I scribbled like crazy trying to keep up. There wasn’t any order to my questions nor did they add up to anything but Franz didn’t seem to mind. I figured it best to let him control the direction of the conversation. He got to talking about the quality of the ingredients in Japan, the best he’d ever worked with. The fish, of course, was first-rate, but also the meat, the tomatoes. He saw the disbelief on my face. The supermarket tomatoes I knew back in Osaka were disturbingly perfect looking and utterly flavourless.

Had I ever had a tomato from Kumamoto, he asked me.

Had I?! I had not.

Franz turned to look for a waiter. One surfaced out of thin air the way they are trained to do in five-star establishments. Soon I had a tomato, halved, on a plate in front of me, shaved Daikon radish piled unobtrusively - gently - off to the side. “Bring some salt,” Franz told the waiter, managing not to sound the least bit rude though he hadn’t said please.

The salt, of the pebbly rock variety, was served in a silver dish. Beside my glass of Kirin a slice of sourdough bread and a square of butter had been placed down so gently I hadn’t even noticed them at first.

The tomato was a deep, sincere red. I sprinkled some salt pebbles on each half, and knife and forked a bite. Usually one to talk before thinking – or rather one to talk as a form of thinking – I was careful this time to select a phrase that would accurately express to the executive head chef of all seven of the Tokyo Grand Hyatt’s restaurants the effect this tomato had on me.

"Oh my God, Franz.”

He wasn’t much phased, though. And he was sorry but he had to go. Other restaurants to check on. Before leaving, Franz told me to make sure to contact PR and that once I got permission from them I could have free reign of the hotel and a real interview. I said I would. I thanked him a lot, then took his hand to say it again with all I could shake.

I stayed a good half hour longer, nursing my beer, trying to make it all last. I was in what is said to be the best steakhouse in Tokyo but I wouldn’t know, not on a teacher’s salary. It really didn’t matter. Because for that moment, with tomato, Kirin and a slice of sour dough bread, I was all the glitter and glamour you could wish for. This was my 1947 glass of Macallan. This was my escape, my recharge, what I needed to continue.

I feel compelled to tell you I did go back down to the Maduro, to the jazz bar, later that night. I had to pay for my drink.

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