Sunday 22 September 2013

Eating and Drinking at Oyado Tamaki

It is almost acutely depressing to be writing about the food we had at Oyado Tamaki right now, given that the size of my bag only allowed me to bring a jar of baby food to school to serve as lunch in between back to back classes. 

Back on that glorious day, M & I rushed back to the room from our lovely warm bath, to see a small cart laden with with plates and bowls sitting by the door. When we slunk in, we found that the table had been cleared of all my tea things from before. 

D was already making the most of the fact that dinner was going to be brought to our room, and had put on the music on his iPad. Since the family iTunes account was initially set up by BB and D never got round to clearing his songs, this meant that apart from D's string of golden oldies, we wound up listening to whatever BB had on his playlist when he was 13. We spent a great deal of dinner singing or grooving along to whatever was playing and I found it very amusing when, later in the evening, D hummed along to 'Teardrops on My Guitar'.

This marked the first time we've ever been served dinner within the comfort of our own room in a ryokan. Normally everyone goes to a common dining area, so having dinner brought up to us seemed marvellously extravagant. 

Kurumi-san had kept an eye out for when M & I returned, and once we'd settled in, she began to bring in our dinner. It was a special menu designed specifically for the Harvest Moon period. 

Kurumi-san first carried in a tray, then a flurry of pots and bowls for the subsequent courses. I got busy taking pictures of everything she was placing in front of me. 

The orders for our first round of drinks had been taken that afternoon not long after we'd checked in, to ensure that everything would be brought to us seamlessly. That they paid attention to small details like this really made the meal great. D's order of the most popular sake in the hotel came in a tall bamboo cup, with an end on the inside whittled away for ease of pouring. Initially D thought the whole bamboo was filled with sake, but there was really just the usual amount sitting at the base. It was super smooth and drinkable, and we wound up getting another serving of it later. 

The meal started with a small glass of plum wine, just like at Yado Kanzan, but here the plum wine was home made, and we'd walked past a massive jar in the lobby that held the plums they'd used to brew it. 

Kurumi-san then told us to place the Kajika (Bullhead fish) on the grill by the side of the soup pot to warm it up. As our skewers of fish slowly sizzled, we ate the rest of the beautifully prepared appetizers. This included crisp ginger flower sushi (My iPhone notes from the evening read "OMG SO GOOD.") and the most tender piece of octopus tentacle I've ever tasted. Normally I hate octopus, but this piece I consumed with relish. The grey ball on the skewer with the tentacle was a sweet, sweet piece of hairy chestnut - very seasonal.  

I am a massive fan of clear soups, so once we judged our pots to be warm enough, I pounced. Next to the burner, there was a small cup with a thin slice of lime in it for us to drink the soup out of. Within Japanese cuisine, the dish is not technically considered a soup since the main focus is meant to be on the ingredients. The broth is more of an aside or an accompaniment, but I've always found I enjoy it more than the bits of seafood inside the pot. (All the goodness has gone into the soup, obviously.)

We didn't quite know what to make of our cheese and wasabi chawanmushi at first. (Who puts cheese with wasabi?!) But the freshly grated wasabi atop the melted cheese gave a great deal of clarity to the flavour of the dish, and the texture of the chawanmushi was excellent. I started off the the chawanmushi on its own, before moving on to a bit with just cheese and so on, and there were different sensations with every bite. 

The sashimi course was exciting, not least because of the piece of ootoro that took pride of place. 

In a gold-rimmed glass cup was chopped iwana (White Spotted Char) with spicy raw ginger, which was gulped down and duly enjoyed.

On the far right of the box was a porcelain dish with more mysterious bits of chopped fish. We asked Kurumi-san what was inside, and she told us cheerfully "It's Koi!". 

"Wait, what? Koi? Like, the massive decorative fish?"

"Yes, Koi!" 

I thought of all the white, red, gold and black Koi we used to feed with little fish food pellets and felt vaguely guilty for a while, then got over myself and tried it. The fish was crunchy and somewhat game-y, which was very interesting. 

Since I was saving the best for last, I ate the whitish piece of konnyaku jelly before preparing my soy sauce for the ootoro, crumbling the little flowers into the sauce dish. Japanese cuisine is traditionally governed by seven methods of food presentation, and here the pieces of ootoro were stacked vertically on top of each other according to the principle of hiramori

The ootoro was, as expected, rich and fatty and soft enough to melt on the tongue. Sitting there, with the fish oils slowly spreading through my mouth and contemplating another glass of sake, I was very glad that M & D decided to be spontaneous and book the tickets to Japan. 

The next course was a perfectly rendered miso dengaku (Eggplant baked with miso paste) garnished with a knot of beans and ginger flower. I was so overwhelmed by the savoury, oily goodness of the eggplant that it brought tears to my eyes. (I may have been quite drunk by this point.)

I hadn't even ordered an alcoholic drink. I'd planned to spend the evening nursing this bottle of niagara grape juice from the Shinshu area, but D asked for another sake glass for me and well. The rest is a blur. 

The glasses we used were so colourful and lovely. For the second bottle of sake we had, Kurumi-san brought us fresh glasses (The lime and aquamarine ones on the left). D and I both liked the aquamarine one, and feeling very magnanimous that evening I let him have it. 

Kurumi-san lit the other braziers after bringing us our plates of beef and vegetables for the sukiyaki course. 

Joshu beef is one of the prized food products of the Gunma region. The cattle (According to the Tourist Guide of Gunma) "are raised with advanced fattening technologies", eating special feed and drinking from the clear waters of the Tone River. Eaten Sukiyaki (Sweet soy hot pot) style, we could taste how the fats from the beef slices were extraordinarily creamy. 

(It was good beef, but we still like Hida Wagyu better because we're very spoilt.) 

After finishing all the sake, D turned the full power of his 'Let's-be-massive-alcoholics' gaze on me and went "LET'S SHARE A BOTTLE OF PLUM WINE YAYYYYY!". And that was what we did. The plum wine came with an ice bucket in the shape of an orange (Complete with imperfections). The shovel for the ice was all smiley as well, which was very cute. 

Next came the grilled cod with a stuffed pepper and grilled mushrooms. I love cod, and this one was well cooked, allowing me to eat it one massive, firm flake at a time. 

By this point, not only had we gone through a few rounds of sake and a bottle of home-made plum wine, but we were also completely overwhelmed by all the exquisite crockery we were coming face to face with in a single sitting. Which is why none of us remembered to keep a copy of the evening's menu. Because of this, apart from the scallop, the prawn, the okra and the cucumber, I have no idea what else made up the vinegared dish. I can only tell you that it was greatly enjoyable. 

The evening's teapot was all rabbits, from the handle to the painting on the body to the cover handle. 

The pepper shaker was a small round owl that looked terribly cuddly for a cold piece of porcelain. 

The pickled vegetables came in a big frosted glass jar so we could help ourselves to the pickles we preferred. As we slowly digested everything we'd eaten so far, I helped to distribute the pickles so I wouldn't just slip off into a massive food coma. 

The last of the savouries was a (Thankfully!) small serving of soba, also served with sliced ginger flower, which helped to keep things light.  

Dessert was a trio of sweets - Yuzu jelly, seasonal fruits (Sliced pear and champagne grapes) and acerola sorbet. Post dinner, we decided it was absolutely imperative for us to take a walk up the stairs of Ikaho onsen, and it did us a world of good. 

The next morning, I made sure to mentally steel myself before breakfast, which was a good thing given the spread that greeted us when we got back from the baths downstairs. 

Possibly the most exciting part of breakfast was the vinegared dish, which involved a bit of work on our part. 

Using the wooden paddle, we had to push the block of konnyaku (Konjac Jelly) through a string mesh, which would cut it into noodles. 

D, the mean person he is, laughed at me as I tried and failed to stab the noodles through. When he realized that is wasn't as easy as it looked, I made sure not to look too smug as he struggled. 

Maybe it was because I had to work so hard for it, or maybe its because I love sour things anyway, but the noodles were so, so great. 

There was get another soup and a side grill, but this time it was radish miso and we grilled a tofu cake instead of fish. 

There was also a hotplate with fish, bamboo shoot, radish and carrot cooked with miso paste. Unfortunately I burned my radish ever so slightly, but I ate it anyway because it was so sweet. (Yeahhh amazing Japanese vegetables)

The most wholesome dish of the morning was a piece of homemade tofu served with soy sauce and chives. 

There were yet more eggplants...

Even the chopstick holder was in the shape of an eggplant. 

What with everything else, I was all set not to have any of the rice Kurumi-san had brought up in a lacquer box, but when we unearthed the pot of pickled plums, I couldn't resist having a couple of them with a small bowl of steaming hot rice. So incredibly satisfying.

Post-dinner and post-breakfast, you could have lain us on our sides and rolled us out the door. After dinner we'd already decided we had to come back and stay at least once more, and after breakfast we expanded this plan to come back and experience every season at Oyado Tamaki just to see what they had to offer. It's a very ambitious plan, but we're very excited for it. 

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