Last night I met a friend for a bicycle trek to an Italian restaurant. It gets dark early here in Japan, so by 5:30pm we already had a night sky with a big orange full moon rising over the city, where off in the distance an office building displayed blinking Christmas lights along its roof. Stupidly, and thanks to my laundry cycle, I was dressed all in black like a ninja.
Black coat, black pants. My friend led us along busy streets and then along a winding course along narrow streets among small boxy houses and over a river dappled with the moon's reflection and the very few streetlights. I was probably completely invisible from behind, a stealth cyclist. Fortunately, it was warm enough that I was able to take off my jacket and display the long relatively bright color of my gray longsleeved undershirt.
We made it to the restaurant safely just about the time my ass completely fell asleep from my bicycle seat.
It's a small place, unassuming, with seating for probably no more than 24. Obviously, they're not about high volume, but while we were there all 5 of the tables became occupied by dining couples, and one party of 4. Her friends- a woman about my age and a younger guy- greeted us and we sat at the bar where there were already plates, wet naps and forks and chopsticks balanced on wine corks sliced lengthwise ready for the starving gaijin and his Nihonjin companion. And her charming black knit cap.
What really impressed me was the oven, imported from Italy. An open-faced stone oven with a fire blazing inside and shiny blue tile deco on the outside, a pipe through the wall to exhaust the smoke. My friend ordered herself a beer and iced tea for me, and we chatted in both English and Japanese. I took the opportunity to use all I've learned from my class, and she apologized every so often for not having practiced her English more. She thinks she's losing her skills, but she sounded fine to me.
We ate oysters with cheese baked on the half-shell and some other little hors d'oeuvres before the chef brought us a small margarita pizza... tomato sauce, cheese, tomatoes and spinach leaves. The crust was outstanding. Little bits of burned area for smoky taste and crispness, just the way I like it. We also had the 4-cheese pizza which was also delicious but my friend pronounced a bit too salty. It also lacks tomato sauce, which is a must for pizza as far as I'm concerned.
The other pizza choices? Well, from the menu most of them seemed to feature oysters or sardines. Raw ham was also an option I rejected. I'm sure they're all just as delicious as the selections we ate, but I just wasn't in the mood for radical experimentalism.
For dessert, I had homemade marbled cheesecake and she had some sort of green ice cream in coffee. There's a huge difference between the storebought cheesecake I'm used to and something homemade. The consistency was thicker and dryer than the machine-produced crap you buy in convenience stores, and it was very delicious. Oh yeah. I could eat an entire cheesecake, and I think the next time I go I'll see if they'll be willing to sell me one. The woman who made it asked me if my slice was too small, or if I expected American size, which to her mind is probably roughly as wide as both my hands side-to-side. I told her it was just fine.
Afterwards, the subject of one of my current heroes, Anthony Bourdain, came up. Whenever I'm trying a new restaurant, I can't help but think about Anthony Bourdain and his show No Reservations, which is a staple on Discovery Channel Japan these days. I gave a brief biography of him to my friend, and she asked her friends if they knew who he was. For the woman, Anthony Bourdain is a mystery, a chimera. But the chef nodded and said something about him in Japanese. Something nice, I'm sure, something along the lines of, "Oh yeah, I've heard of him. He's a chef, right?"
They asked if I was from New York and thinking the question was about Bourdain, at first I said yes before getting a friendly correction. Oops. No, I'm a Georgia cracker.
And we talked about language. My friend said the chef knows a bit of Italian, and within seconds we were looking at his photo album of his stint in Italy 4 years ago when he apprenticed to a real Italian chef. He joked about looking much younger in the photos, but I told him he looks the same now.
At which he laughed and pointed to his eyes, telling us there are not only wrinkles there but scars. Yes, he has a bit of calcium buildup around his brow ridges. Why? Because he trains in mixed martial arts. At that point I noticed some severe cauliflowering of his left ear, which was probably only 80% the size of his right. This led the conversation away from Italy and celebrity chefs into strictly fight talk, whereupon communication broke down almost completely because our helpful translator had no idea how to render Japanese fight jargon into English and vice versa.
We did toss out some names. Forrest Griffin (of course) and his win over Mauricio "Shogun" Hua was of interest to the chef, because he's a Shogun fan. He also namechecked Wanderlei Silva, and knew of both Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. In fact, he went on a little spiel about Couture, which my friend relayed to me in fragments before telling me, "He gave up."
Meaning the chef quit because he knew what he was saying wasn't getting across the communication gap. It made me wish my Japanese skills were better, because I'd love talking MMA with this guy. If there's one thing I admire, it's people with diverse interests... especially if they have a certain level of expertise in those fields. For example, an excellent Italian chef who trains so hard in martial arts he has the battle damage to prove it.
What are the chances someone like me, with a bit of an interest in the world of UFC and mixed martial arts, would end up in an Italian restaurant in Japan talking to someone that deeply involved? My friend learned the word "coincidence," the concept of which she was already completely aware, of course. And I learned the Japanese word for it, but only briefly because I promptly forgot.
Thinking back now, though, it's not that big a surprise. MMA fans are everywhere if you keep your ears and eyes open for the telltale signs, so this might be more of an example of confirmation bias the same way most synchronous incidents turn out to be. When you remember that Hamamatsu has one of the largest Brazilian population percentages of any major city in Japan, it becomes less surprising that I'd meet someone who's more up on Brazilian fighters than he is on the Americans.
I forgot to ask him about the Gracies!
Oh well, we'll be returning to this restaurant so there will be plenty of opportunities. And another enjoyable thing about going to places like this are you make friends with the owners and you get to see the more intimate places of this city, rather than just hanging around the train station and the obvious places. My old neighborhood of Sanaru-dai was full of secret restaurants that were mostly sonambulant in terms of customers but wide awake when it comes to delicious food and charm.