Tokyo’s latest and greatest multi-use building, Tokyo Midtown, opened in Roppongi recently. The complex houses the Ritz Carlton Tokyo, offices and a metric shit-ton of restaurants, including a spin-off of the ultra-popular Union Square Cafe in New York.
USC is my guilty pleasure whenever I’m in Manhattan. Over 20 years old, the restaurant isn’t breaking new culinary ground, but its excellent service, light and airy space and reliable, fresh cooking makes it hard to resist.
Union Square Tokyo, sadly, fails to deliver. The space is dark and and vaguely nightclub-y, lacking the warm woods and natural light of its namesake. You could be in any hip, international restaurant in Tokyo.
The service was also lacking. After a 15 minute wait for our drinks, our server mixed up our appetizer orders, leaving one person in our party to watch the rest of us eat, while the kitchen finished off her starter. The incredibly competent and easy-going service staff of the original USC is desperately needed here.
Finally, the food. This was Union Square Tokyo’s strongest suit, but was lacking, even still. The spring vegetable risotto was made with Japanese rice, instead of arborio, so it lacked the smooth, starchy texture that risotto is famous for. My tuna tartar appetizer and Yukari’s seared chu-toro main were both vaguely fishy—inexcusable at a restaurant 15 minutes from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market.
Probably the only winners here are the owners of USC. Union Square Tokyo is a pure franchise play. A Japanese company owns the restaurant and is taking all the financial risk. USC is licensing the name and providing “guidance”, while skimming off big chunks of the gross receipts. Good work if you can get it, I guess, but a lost opportunity for the Tokyo restaurant scene.
The directions off a bottle of shampoo at a friend’s house in Berkeley:
Apply shampoo to wet hair. Envision a string quartet holding a major chord. Lather and rinse well.
Recently, Yukari and I were walking home after dinner, down a long street near our house that features a ton of restaurants and, of course, a water bar.
When I glanced up one of the little side streets, I saw a pig. And not just any pig, but a huge, pot bellied big that looked like it had teleported in from some farm. Needless to say, this was not what I was expecting.
When I pointed the pig out to Yukari, she first claimed that it was not a pig. Undeterred, I approached the pig and its Japanese owner.
Me: “Is that a pig?”
Japanese Pig Owner: “Yes! [proudly] He’s exactly 100 kilograms!”
Me: “Is it OK to pet him?”
So I petted the 200+ pound pig. He was a little bristly, but otherwise similar to a very large dog. He snuffled around the street while I petted him, eating tree leaves and bits of trash.
At this point, Yukari decided that she was going to get into the game too. She found out that the pig was only 2 years old (!) and was named Tonkun or “pig”. If you’ve ever eaten tonkatsu, Japanese fried pork cutlet, it’s the same “ton”.
Sadly, this was one of the few times that I didn’t have my cell phone, so no pics of Tonkun. But I’ll be on the lookout; hiding a 200+ pound pig in Tokyo is pretty hard.
The best, however, was, as we walked away, Yukari went into Miss Manners mode:
Yukari: “You shouldn’t ask people if their pets are pigs or not!”
Me: “Why not? It was clearly a pig?”
Yukari: “It would make the owner feel bad if you were wrong and it was just a really ugly dog.”
The finer points of Japanese etiquette are clearly still beyond me.